REVIEW: Scalped #50

I’ve said it before, and I’ll start by saying it again: in my humble opinion, Scalped is the best comic on shelves today, has been for a long time, and the longer it runs, the stronger a case it makes for itself to stand amongst the all-time greats of the comic book medium.  I’ve already written at length about the series on several occasions, doing my best to spread the word.  But frustratingly, Scalped has never been as big a hit as it deserves to be.  So it is all the more rewarding that this gritty crime drama about an undercover FBI agent working to take down a criminal organisation in an Indian reservation (though really, it’s about that as much as The Wire was about cops and robbers) has now reached its milestone 50th issue.  It is indeed a cause for celebration, and as such Scalped #50 takes us out of the ongoing central narrative, reading more like a well-deserved victory lap for the book’s creative team.

As the issue begins, we’re taken out of the present-day saga, back to the winter of 1876.  We follow a white scalphunter and his son as they set up camp in Montana, with a gruesome opening scene going into detail about how one commits the brutal act that gives this series its title.  Through the scalphunter’s recollections, we get a glimpse of the bloody history of atrocities that Native Americans were subjected to through the ages.  It’s a sobering reminder that, if such acts were committed anywhere else, they would be viewed as genocide, but because white Americans were the ones doing the hunting and killing, it’s a dark period of American history that’s been largely swept under the rug or whitewashed (pardon the pun) by many a Hollywood Western.  Then, in a horrific, grimly satisfying (if slightly contrived) twist, we discover that (for better or worse) the Indians weren’t so different from the white settlers they fought against.

In this 9-page opening story, new readers can get a look at the winning combination of creators that has defined Scalped over its run, and get a taste of what they’ve been mising.  There’s the hard-boiled writing of Jason Aaron, both profane and poetic (often within the same sentence).  Aaron is one of the best writers around today, and while he’s best known as one of Marvel’s “architects” and the current go-to guy for Wolverine, Scalped remains the best showcase for his distinctive voice.  There’s the stunning artwork of R.M. Guera, with it’s intricate layouts and depth of detail.  Guera is truly one of the unsung heroes of comics, excelling in everything from sweeping visuals that create a distinct sense of place to a mastery of facial expression and body language that makes the “acting” of his characters almost unmatched.  And there’s the grimy, washed-out colors of Giulia Brusco, the prominent use of browns and oranges creating a parched, sun-drenched aesthetic that helps bring Prairie Rose to life as a place that feels real just as much as Aaron’s writing or Guera’s art.  The creative synergy between these three is practically symbiotic, so much so that even the best issues with fill-in artists, even when beautifully illustrated in their own right, feel like they’re missing something.

If I have any complaint about the issue, it’s the lettering.  For this first segment, Guera letters over his own art, with Sal Cipriano taking over for the remaining 11 pages.  Guera’s lettering is decent enough, a good match for the period setting of the story.  But it’s a bit scratchy, and the blocky speech bubbles aren’t always easy on the eye.  The main problem is that I miss Steve Wands.  I talked above about the creative synergy of the Scalped creative team, and regular letterer Wands is a vital part of that.  The fluidity of his speech bubbles and captions, the way they flow and sprawl across the page, guiding the eye with precision, is reminiscent of John Costanza’s innovative work on Swamp Thing.  Cipriano makes a game attempt at aping Wands’ style, but it isn’t quite the same.  I called this issue a victory lap for what is affectionately referred to in the closing credits box as “the Scalped Crew”, so it’s deeply unfortunate that this one key, but often overlooked component of the crew didn’t get his moment in the sun.

The first half of Scalped #50 is an effective little standalone story that someone who has never looked at the series could pick up and enjoy.  But what truly earns this anniversary issue its high rating is the second half that follows.  We skip forward thirteen years to 1889, as the ancestor of Dashiell Bad Horse – the main character of Scalped – is forced into the fledgling Prairie Rose reservation.  Here, the very act of situating Natives in reservations such as this one is presented as little more than another attempt at Indian genocide by the white colonists of America.  These people were sent here to die, and Bad Horse’s forefather literally is dying from a bayonet wound to the gut.  But in his last moments, he has a visions of the future…

And what follows is a spectacular artistic jam session, a series of full-page splashes depicting select members of the comic’s vast and varied ensemble.  Tim Truman, Jill Thompson, Jordi Bernet, Denys Cowan, Dean Haspiel, Brendan McCarthy and – best of all – Steve Dillon each provide a page, and while special issues of many a comic have treated readers to a gallery of pinups, Aaron makes them more than just that by working them into the fabric of the story.  Against the backdrop of these images, Aaron’s words paint a picture of Prairie Rose and its inhabitants that is defiant and surprisingly hopeful, given how bleak the series can often be.

So, while it does work as a standalone tale, Scalped #50 also manages to act as a comment on the series as a whole up until this point.  Life can be difficult, life can be almost unbearable, but the very act of living is a triumphant overcoming of the odds.  Perhaps it is a comment that applies to the creators as well as the characters.  Scalped has defiantly lived on to its 50th issue.  Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this far: now let’s see where the rest of the story goes.

Comic Book Pacing

As someone who’s fairly new to writing comics, one of the things I have found most difficult to get right is pacing.  It’s one of the most vital elements of comic book storytelling, but also one of the most inscrutable and elusive.  This week, Steven Forbes posted an excellent Bolts & Nuts column on the subject over on ComixTribe.  Anyone wanting to learn more about pacing, or how to write comics in general, should definitely be checking out Bolts & Nuts if you aren’t already.

I’m not sure I fully agree with everything Steve says there, though. I can see the logic that more panels on a page will slow it down and less on a page will speed it up, and some of the time I think that yes, this is indeed the case. Especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. But I don’t think it appliies all the time, and in many cases – particularly in action scenes – I find the opposite to be true.

For example, let’s imagine a big cimactic fight scene between Chilly Willy and The Golden Hemorrhoid. If I was writing this four page scene, I might start with a 4 panel page, showing both men facing each other down, then reaction shots of each man, before finishing up with them charging towards each other. I’m wanting this to be a slow moment, building up anticipation, and the larger, more detailed images encourage the eye to focus more on them, taking more time to dwell on the moment. I’d also probably make this an odd-numbered page, so the reader would have to turn the page to start reading the fight itself.

With the second page, I’d be tempted to try using 8 or 9 panels. All with shots in quick succession. Panel one could be Willy punching the Hemorrhoid in the face, panel 2 the Hemmorrhoid poking Willy in the eye, panel 3 Willy giving Hemorrhoid a purple nurple, and so on and so forth. Generally, a series of snapshots of quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments. All small panels, crammed together, encourage the eye to race through them. It’s like putting the reader in amidst the quick, frenzied atmosphere of a battle.

By the third page, these two titans have grown exhausted from beating on each other, so the pace of the battle has slowed. Perhaps evil Chilly Willy has gained the advantage over our hero, The Golden Hemorrhoid, and so taunts him while he’s down, giving him a boot in the ribs while boasting about his superiority. But heroic Hemorrhoid is building up his strength, and regains the advantage, lecturing Willy on how evil will never prevail. There is motion here, so I’m not trying to create a sense of stillness like with the first page, but there is also dialogue, so the pace has slowed down a bit, and I want that reflected in the reading experience. So I’d probably use 5 or 6 panels here, with the reader taking a little time on each panel as they read the dialogue, but things are still moving forward. And with how I began the scene, page 3 also falls on an odd-numbered page, allowing for a page turn…

The final page of the fight is a full-page splash, with The Golden Hemorrhoid blasting a massive fireball out of his anus, setting Chilly Willy ablaze and flying screaming into the air like one of Dhalsim’s opponents in a “Street Fighter” game. This is a big moment, where the whole fight is brought to a standstill, and much like the big slow-motion knockout punch in a film, I want the reader to dwell on this climactic moment. A big splash page, lots of detail, encourages the reader’s eye to settle on that moment for a little while, slowing down the scene in their head.

So I think that more panels on a page CAN be said to speed up a scene, while less panels CAN slow it down. Though having said that, I’ve also done things the other way like Steve recommends, using 8 panels in a page to create a sense of slow motion, of a single moment being drawn out. It all depends on context.

I’m also interested in the taboo of the silent opening page. It’s something I’ve never attempted, not feeling competent enough that I could pull it off, but I’m fascinated by the sheer ballsiness of the idea. The name of it escapes me, but I remember encountering one comic where the first FOUR pages are silent, and are taken up by nothing but sunrise in a city, as we see night give way to morning in intimate detail. I’d love the challenge of trying to grab someone’s attention without words.

I’ve long dwelled on the idea of a haunted house comic: speaking of taboos, the idea came to me from Steven Forbes saying that it is impossible to make one scary. I’ve never went ahead with writing it because, as far as I can tell, Steve is right, and I at least can’t find the tools within the comic medium to tell a haunted house story effectively. But I’m going to keep trying to figure it out. The one idea I do have would be to open with several silent pages, filled with establishing shots of the various rooms of the house, culminating in a full-page splash of the exterior establishing shot of the house as a whole. Not something I think I can pull off yet. Hence why I’m sitting on the idea for now.

Okay, so let’s look at how pacing works with the breaking down of scenes in an actual comic. I’ve been talking a lot about Scalped lately, so I’ll use the most recent issue, #46, as my case study. The issue can broken down into 5 scenes over its 20 pages.

The first scene is 4 pages, the first and fourth of which are both splash pages. The setting is a cave, where one character is holding another captive. In the case of the first page, we have a close-up of the character in peril. I imagine this is going to be a recurring trend throughout the current arc (“You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”) as the first part began with a full-page close-up of another character. This is telling us that the issue will be told largely from that character’s perspective, slowing down as we dwell on getting into their mindset. The second page is 6 panels, and the third page is 5, both of which are dialogue based and move by pretty fast. The fourth page is another splash, in this case setting up a dangerous scenario, and drawing our eye across the page to explore said scenario in more detail. Again, slowing down.

The second scene is five pages long, and is a talking heads scene, based around one character visiting another in prison. As opposed to the previous scene, the increased number of panels are used here to slow things down – the panel counts are 7, 6, 6, 7 and 6 respectively. Here, close-ups and silent beats are inserted in to create pregnant pauses between the conversation, slowing the scene down. In the final page, we see the prisoner walking back to his cell. This could have been done in one panel. But by taking four – one of him walking, one with the camera placed behind a cell of prisoners staring at him as he walks, one with a close-up of the prisoner’s eyes looking sideways, and another high-angle shot looking down at him walking, we dwell on the scene, thinking more about the character’s vulnerability.

Now things get complicated, as the next 9 pages are shared by both the third and fourth scene of the comic, which us cutting back and forth between the two locations. Both are action scenes, of a sort. The first scene is of our kidnapped captive trying to escape from the cave, while the other returns to our prisoner, waiting anxiously for an attempted assassination in the showers he fears is coming his way. We’re four pages into scene three before scene four starts encroaching, and with both scenes jostling for space in the same page we get an increased page count, the page gets more crowded, and it feels like the pace is picking up, each scene building to a crescendo. But then scene 4 ends with a 7-panel page of its own and scene 3 ends with a 5-panel page, where the crescendo stops, and each ends surprisingly quietly. In the case of each scene conclusion, the panels on the top half of the page are packed tightly, before opening out into larger panels at the bottom of the page, when things get still. Again, larger panels slowing things down.

The final scene is a 2-panel page, with one character confronting an unknown figure at gunpoint. The first page is 5 panels, and goes by slowly, building tension for the reveal of who the character is. We turn the page, and the last page of the issue is a full-page splash, revealing what character our assailant is talking to. Because it’s the last moment of the issue, we dwell on it.

So I’m afraid I haven’t been very helpful here. Pages with lots of panels can be used to slow things down… or speed them up. With the same writer using it to do two different things within the same comic, no less!

Given there are so many ways to get pacing right, and even more ways to get it wrong, it’s difficult finding a hard-and-fast rule of, “THIS is the best way to pace your comics.”  I think the hardest part about it is that pacing is so subjective.  No matter how many little tricks we might be able to use as creators to guide the eye or encourage the reader to speed up or slow down, ultimately there is no way we can exercise complete control over how fast or slow someone reads a comic.  The pages that I talked about spending some time on, another reader might have skimmed over, and vice versa.  In the end, it’s out of our hands.  Pacing is decided anew by each new reader who picks up your comic book.  The best we can do is offer some subtle encouragement.

The Shadow of Scalped

With the exclusive contract he signed a couple of years back, most of the work Jason Aaron is doing these days is with Marvel Comics, arguably best known for his work with Wolverine, first in Wolverine: Weapon X and more recently in the relaunched Wolverine. But his crowning achievement remains Scalped, the masterful crime comic from Vertigo that I recently declared my top comic of 2010. With all the current discussions circulating about creator-owned comics, it might make for an interesting case study to look at how Jason Aaron handled the transition from creator-owned material to work-for-hire gigs, and how much of his own voice he has been able to bring to the tenured characters of the Marvel Universe.

Before we can examine how much of Jason Aaron’s authorial stamp carries over into his Marvel work, we need to get an idea of what constitutes a Jason Aaron comic in its purest form. As such, the best place to begin is Scalped. In this case, we’re putting a focus on Dead Mothers, the third graphic novel collecting the series thus far. The previous volume, Casino Boogie, saw the series take a shift from noir-tinged crime drama into something deeper and more ambitious, playing with time and perspective as we relived the moments leading up to the finale of opening volume Indian Country over and over, heightening the tragedy of what inevitably approached, and building up tension over what would follow. With Dead Mothers, we at last get to see the aftermath of Gina Bad Horse’s murder, and the narrative steps up to the next level.

Though having said that, the opening chapter of Dead Mothers – “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” – gives us yet more build-up, ending with us revisiting the discovery of Gina Bad Horse’s corpse for a third time. Now, when I first got my hands on this graphic novel, I’ll admit to speeding through this first chapter, eager as I was to finally discover how the other characters would react to Gina’s death. But upon revisiting Dead Mothers, it becomes clear that “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” is one of the most pivotal chapters in the book, if not the series as a whole.

This issue gives us perhaps the most comprehensive insight into Dashiell Bad Horse and the demons driving him that we’ve ever had, though unlocking the enigma that is Bad Horse and his motivations is a topic dense and complicated enough to devote a whole commentary of its own to. But what makes this issue so crucial to the wider tapestry of Scalped and our understanding of what Jason Aaron is trying to say with the series is how it seems to lay the trajectory of the whole series out before us, to an extent that even now isn’t entirely clear. In this chapter, Gina Bad Horse (by this point already dead, which her son doesn’t know about yet) appears to Dashiell in a dream, offering cryptic messages about who he is, where he comes from, and, on page 17, the trials he is yet to face:

It’s going to get very ugly around here, and more people are going to die. And before it’s over, you’ll have done some horrible things. Just remember that this is all happening for a reason… By the time you wake up, it will have already started.

This message, and much of the preceding dream sequence, builds up a sense of crushing inevitability, of each character destined to play a part on a stage grander than their comprehension, with any effort to resist their fate only serving to aid them in sealing it. It’s a concept revisited time and again in Scalped, through the experiences of various characters.

Gina’s forecast of what was to come here has of course turned out to be astute, given the subsequent body count that Scalped has accrued. As such, looking back on this chapter with the experience of what has followed, her warning to Bad Horse on page 18 carries with it an enhanced sense of dread:

You’re gonna want to kill him, when you find out what he did! But you shouldn’t! If you do, you’ll pay for it dearly! And he’s not worth it!

Who is the mysterious “him” that Gina is referring to? Is it Catcher, who we would soon discover was the one who murdered Gina? Is it Wade, Bad Horse’s father, who we learned in issue #38, “Family Tradition”, was an FBI informant like his son? Perhaps it is Diesel, who Bad Horse later murders as an act of revenge for the deeds he commits later in Dead Mothers, in which case it is too late for Bad Horse to heed his mother’s warning. Or Gina could be referring to the transgressions of another character we’re not yet aware of. Whatever the case, you get a sense of just how far ahead this chapter is looking, how much of the overall trajectory of the series is foreshadowed within its pages.

Another interesting thing about this opening chapter of Dead Mothers is that it was the first issue of Scalped not to be penciled by regular artist R.M. Guera, with fill-in artist John Paul Leon bringing his accomplished but distinct visuals to the story. As such, it’s commendable just how consistent with the tone of all that came before this feels, saying a lot for the command Aaron’s writing has over the narrative. One striking element carried over from Guera to Leon is the balance between gritty and ethereal. Much has been said about the former, with Aaron’s hard-hitting dialogue matching up with the claustrophobic panel arrangements and heavy shadows that have come to define the comic’s visual aesthetic to create a stifling sense of decay and despair. But less seems to be said about the latter, perhaps because it’s less constant, drifting in and out of the narrative. But it’s certainly there, in occasional moments of perverse beauty, in elements of old folklore creeping forebodingly into these modern surroundings, or as is the case in “Dreaming Himself into the Real World”, with dreams that may or may not be prophetic visions from the spirit world.

Dead Mothers is bookended by another chapter drawn by a fill-in artist, in this case Davide Furno, who would go on to draw several fill-in issues of the series. In this chapter, “Falls Down”, Furno brings a style that is very much his own, more distinct from Guera’s linework than Leon’s art in “Dreaming Himself into the Real World”. In “Falls Down”, Furno’s work looks fluid and graceful, like brush strokes, and Aaron responds with a story that feels more lyrical and – dare I say it – optimistic than a typical issue of Scalped.

The key phrase of the entire issue comes on page 16, when Franklin Falls Down says in his narration, “Beauty is all around us here. You just have to fight for it.” This is a sentiment expressed in the chapter’s opening pages, with glimpses of brutal crime scenes and traumatic moments in Falls Down’s life juxtaposed against snapshots of the beautiful aspects of his home and his culture. It’s also reflected in the character of Falls Down himself. While Scalped has been criticized by some for its unrelenting bleakness and its cast of largely despicable characters, Falls Down is an example of a truly decent man, an honest cop driven by altruistic motives and a genuine desire to do good, who prefers to resolve issues through non-violent means where possible, and who is proud of his Indian heritage. His story here, coming to terms with his grief and resolving to put it behind him and do more to see all the good in the world, is different to the self-destructive arcs of most of our principle characters, which along with the contrasting art makes this feel like it could almost belong to a different series.

But despite the ostensive differences, the recurring motifs emerge here too. Once more, we get the sense of a crime narrative haunted by the symbolism invoked by its Reservation setting, and with moments of poetry emerging from the grimmest of scenarios. In this chapter this is best illustrated on page 16, which gives us one of the most memorable images of the series: the mangled corpse of Falls Down’s wife transforms into flower petals, which blow away in the wind.

But as fascinating as these two bookends may be, the main meat of Dead Mothers is the five-chapter “Dead Mothers” arc in between them, penciled by regular artist R.M. Guera. One of the most immediately striking elements throughout this arc is just how much control over the storytelling Aaron gives to Guera, most famously in the closing sequence of the graphic novel’s second chapter, where Dashiell Bad Horse is about to tell a group of children their mother is dead, just as he himself learns his own mother is dead:

After months of build-up, all the suspense over how Bad Horse would react upon discovering his mother’s death, all the thoughts that would be rushing through his head… we get silence. Yet those three silent pages tell us so much, in particular how much of himself Bad Horse sees in the oldest child, Shelton. But as acclaimed as this sequence is, it is just one of numerous silent sequences throughout “Dead Mothers”. Amidst the praise for the last 3 pages of the story’s first part being silent, it’s often overlooked that the opening three pages are almost completely silent also, showcasing Red Crow’s reaction to Gina’s death to equally powerful effect. With page 2 in particular, we see Red Crow’s memories of Gina’s life juxtaposed with snapshots of the empty shell that remains: from the special way she brushed her hair to the corpse’s limp hand, from their first kiss to the corpse’s lifeless lips. In part 2 we have Gina’s body being put into storage in the morgue and Bad Horse kicking the hell out of a car in a fit of rage, in part 3 we have Bad Horse revisiting his childhood home, and in part 5 we have Red Crow attending Gina’s funeral service and later agonizing over calling his daughter Carol, all done largely in silence.

With no words to aid us, and the storytelling entirely dependent on the art, the spotlight is on R.M. Guera, and he doesn’t disappoint. He has such an incredible talent for capturing all the subtle nuances of emotion, able to go big and dramatic when required, but mostly working with little facial shifts, doing so much with small beats like the closing of eyes or the casting of features into the shade. It is some of the best “acting” you’ll find in any comic book. Of course, silent panels can take just as much thought and effort to script out for a writer as panels with dialogue, so though a writer may get less recognition for them without their words peppered across the final page, silent sequences are typically a creative decision on their part. Aaron knows that, as a writer, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

With part 2, the third chapter of the Dead Mothers graphic novel, another recurring theme emerges: struggles with faith, and the part faith plays in forming identity. This chapter opens with a flashback of Gina telling a young Dashiell an old Lakota story about how Iktomi the spider trickster brought them from the underground caves where they lived long ago to the land where they live now. Young Dashiell rejects the story as nonsense, but on page 18 we see a grown-up Bad Horse telling the same story to a young Shelton. As mentioned above, in Shelton Bad Horse sees a reflection of his young self: angry, hurt, putting on a show of strength to hide his fear, and a sense of shame of his own culture and heritage (on page 8, Shelton says, “I don’t want be an Indian no more. I just wanna be a regular person.”) And it is only in seeing Shelton and finding himself on the other side that Bad Horse realizes what his mother was trying to do for him.

The opening of the fifth and final part of “Dead Mothers” highlights two more narrative tools Aaron revisits again and again. Part 4 ends with Bad Horse discovering Shelton has set off to try and kill Diesel – who murdered his mother – himself. Reading this, our expectation for the final part would be a race against the clock, with Bad Horse trying to find Diesel and Shelton before it’s too late. Instead, the chapter opens with Shelton already shot dead by Diesel, the confrontation having happened off-panel between issues. This demonstrates how uncompromising Aaron can be, often using the endangerment and even the death of children as an example of how grim the world of the story is, and how nobody is safe. It is also an example of how Aaron likes to deflate expectation, setting up scenarios that could very easily play along established routes before then taking things in a surprisingly different direction, thus making us think more about the way stories are constructed in the first place. Other examples of this in Scalped include the aforementioned silent sequence where Bad Horse learns of his mother’s death, and arguably even the whole set-up of Scalped itself, in which we were originally introduced to a cast of archetypal characters who over time became a lot more multi-faceted and complex.

It can be seen that Dead Mothers is a graphic novel dense with all the central themes that play out in Scalped as a whole, and as such is an ideal showcase for how Scalped represents Jason Aaron’s authorial voice. But if Scalped serves as a kind of control sample for what kind of stories Aaron writes when he’s dealing with his own creations and can write whatever he wants, the real test becomes how much of that is reflected in the work-for-hire jobs he has done for Marvel.

Having recently bought the Ghost Rider Omnibus collecting Jason Aaron’s entire 21-issue run with the character (15 issues of the ongoing Ghost Rider series and then the 6-part Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire mini-series) – a great book, by the way, offering a fantastic story in a high-quality package for a surprisingly cheap price – I think it might be the best place to start. Ghost Rider has never been the most critically-respected character. I’ve been aware of him since the ‘90s, but the characters’ convoluted history and uninteresting cast of supporting characters and villains made him a character I never felt particularly compelled to read more of. But based on all the praise lavished upon Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider, in addition to my already-existing interest in Aaron’s work, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t regret it. Through this run, Aaron crafted an epic narrative that seemed to incorporate a wide range of characters from Ghost Rider’s history in a way that was respectful to the history of the series and respectful to long-time fans, while at the same using them to tell a story that felt complete and accessible to newcomers like me. Indeed, the brief references to the wider Marvel Universe are often played for laughs, whether it be Ghost Rider annoyed at someone confusing him with “some damn superhero”, a one-page montage of Marvel characters reacting to the apocalyptic events of the narrative in a manner that suggests they’d be hopelessly underqualified to deal with it even if they weren’t too busy dealing with their own comparatively minor issues to notice, and some Ghost Riders from the future making a reference to Secret Invasion (“What about the Skrulls? Should we tell her about the Skrulls? Have you been invaded by Skrulls yet?”). Most impressive is the mood of the whole thing, with the continuity-dense trappings of a Marvel superhero comic largely cast aside in favor of crazy, horror-tinged, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek grindhouse fun.

But I’m not here to just gush about how much I love these comics, much as I’d like to. The relevant issue here is how many of the established recurring themes in Jason Aaron’s creator-owned work are also present here in Ghost Rider? The answer to that would be, “a lot.” The very concept of Ghost Rider is one that feels perfectly suited to Aaron, given how it ties into the idea of fate, and whether or not an individual can successfully fight against the path laid out for them in life. In this run, the idea is explored not just through the obvious avenues of Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch – the two central Ghost Riders – but in the arc of young nun Sara, who unexpectedly becomes the new Caretaker after her grandfather’s death, and to a lesser degree the heroic character of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, who dreads becoming like his father. By picking up on a twist introduced by previous writer Daniel Way – that the Ghost Rider was in fact an agent of Heaven rather than Hell, and Johnny Blaze’s predicament was the fault of a rogue angel named Zadkiel – Aaron also has an opportunity to once again look at ideas of faith, with people finding their idea of Heaven challenged by the civil war going on there, with some losing faith completely and others remaining steadfast in their beliefs.

Not everything makes the leap from Scalped, however. For example, Ghost Rider is a much wordier book, with little in the way of extended silent sequences. Ghost Rider is a different type of book, though. Scalped is very character-driven, with the overarching plot slowing or sometimes fading into the background as we dwell on the character’s reactions to it. Ghost Rider, on the other hand, is very plot-driven. Not to say it doesn’t have an interesting cast of characters, but they always act in service of the plot, and we’re always moving forward, allowing for little to time to spend some pages silently reflecting on a quiet moment. This is also a universe that – as much as Aaron has worked to streamline it and make it accessible – is still very continuity-dense, delving into big, reality-spanning concepts, and such constant exposition is often required. But despite the limitations of working in a shared universe, Aaron has the freedom to add plenty of his own concepts and characters to the Ghost Rider universe, and tells a story so distinctive that it almost feels creator-owned.

Aaron’s current tenure as writer of Punishermax has proven to be more challenging. While Ghost Rider was a character lacking much in the way of classic stories or celebrated creative runs, in recent years The Punisher has become defined by the celebrated work on the character done by one writer – Garth Ennis – also under the Punisher MAX label. Though this run exists outside Marvel’s main continuity, it has come to be viewed as the definitive Punisher of the character’s history, and the “real” Punisher within Marvel proper has often been deemed lacking in comparison. When Ennis’ finished his landmark run, it was believed that Punisher MAX was finished too, that no one could touch that version of the character after Ennis. So it was with some surprise, and a certain level of controversy, that the series was relaunched with the slightly altered title of Punishermax and Jason Aaron was tasked with telling his own stories with what many would call “the Garth Ennis Punisher,” even working with regular Ennis collaborator Steve Dillon as the artist.

Given how comprehensively Ennis explored the character of Frank Castle throughout his run, Aaron perhaps wisely sidesteps that with the arc collected in the first graphic novel of his run, Kingpin, instead focusing primarily on Wilson Fisk, and his rise into the eponymous role of The Kingpin of Crime. It made for a clever hook for this relaunch, taking the idea of reimagining The Punisher against the backdrop of a gritty crime saga in a Marvel Universe where there are no superheroes, and applying it to The Kingpin (and in the following arc, Bullseye). So, The Kingpin, a character who, despite not having a costume or superpowers, still always seemed almost as fantastical as your average supervillain, is grounded in this “real-world” tableau, with a new interpretation that the idea of a “Kingpin of Crime” has long been nothing more than a myth, a fictional bogeyman that couldn’t realistically insist, and Fisk creates the persona of this mysterious, all-powerful crime boss who doubles as a “humble dealer in spices” – basically Fisk’s classic persona in the main Marvel Universe – supposedly as a ruse to distract The Punisher, with the five heads of the New York Mafia families bankrolling the operation. And it’s only by degrees, over the course of the five-chapter story, that Fisk turns on his bosses and becomes the Kingpin for real. It’s not until the very end of the story that we see Wilson Fisk in his fortress skyscraper, in his white suit, holding his diamond-tipped cane, as the character is typically portrayed in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man or Daredevil. The whole story, then, serves as a continuance of this idea of fate as an inescapable, even Machiavellian force carrying characters along towards their ultimate purpose. In the case of Kingpin, the effect is heightened by our familiarity with the Kingpin of the Marvel Universe, our acute awareness of what Wilson Fisk will inevitably become by the story’s end.

Kingpin1

Aaron’s Wilson Fisk has a lot in common with Lincoln Red Crow, more than the obvious similarity of them both being involved in organized crime. Both had troubled childhoods, each fighting through abuse and emerging hardened as a result of it. Both find themselves alone and estranged from their families as a result of the decisions they’ve made. And both have toughness, determination and a willingness to fight against enemies stronger than them (in terms of influence, manpower and resources, if not physical power) that makes you almost want to cheer for them in spite of their despicable actions. But there is one crucial difference that sets Fisk apart from Red Crow, best illustrated by Fisk’s own narration on pages 19-20 of the story’s final chapter:

I always told myself, everything I did, I did for my son. So he’d never have to suffer like I’ve suffered. He’d never have to be raped by five guys in prison or have to take shit off a man like Don Rigoletto. He’d never have to kill like I’ve killed. I always said, this was all for Richard. But now… now I have to admit to myself… this was never about Richard. It was for me. It was always for me.

However immoral or even reprehensible many of Red Crow’s deeds have been over the course of Scalped, we have learned that everything he does is – in his own mind at least – in service of a greater good, acting in what he believes are the best interests of the Oglala Lakota nation. We have seen that at certain key moments he has been able to act in the interests of others in a manner that could even be called heroic. But everything Fisk does is motivated by self-interest. And while we might find ourselves supporting him in his ruse against Don Rigoletto, the whole last chapter is a clinical exercise in removing any illusions we might have had about Fisk’s human decency, with his final actions to ensure his rise to power resulting in the violent death of his young son. Worst of all is his attempt at reassuring his hysterical wife as she screams for her lost son: “We’ll have another one.”

This scene serves as an example of that recurring theme of even children – or perhaps that should be “especially children” – not being safe in the dark worlds Aaron presents to us. This is an example of how the move from Vertigo to Marvel, in this case at least, doesn’t result in material any less uncompromising from Aaron. The story’s placement within the MAX imprint allows for enough nudity, violence and strong language to make this feel like a largely seamless transition from Scalped. It lets Aaron include content that’s much darker than you would expect to find in a Marvel comic:

Of course, uncompromising adult content is hardly new to Punisher stories. Ennis had been doing it for a long time before Aaron came along, so its presence in Kingpin is hardly a concrete example of Aaron making his own distinct voice heard within his Marvel work. However, when we take a look at what Aaron has Frank Castle doing during Fisk’s rise to power – namely his confrontation with Amish killer The Mennonite – we see Aaron working in one of his most prominent recurring motifs. While Ennis typically treats religion with gleeful contempt, in the character of The Mennonite Aaron once again gives us a measured depiction of a struggle with faith. He is someone trying to bury his old life as a killer (in chapter 3 we see him literally burying his guns), but when his wife is deathly ill and he prays to God for a sign of a way to help her, he receives word that Don Rigoletto is looking to hire him to kill The Punisher. And so he takes the job, attempting to do so in a way that honors the rules of his religion. Hypocritical as this may sound, ironically enough it is when he casts aside the rules of his religion prohibiting the use of guns (with a “To hell with it,” even) that he seals his own fate. Touches like this, as well as the various other recurring motifs noted, not to mention Aaron’s near-peerless knack for hard-hitting dialogue, allow Jason Aaron to step out from the shadow of Garth Ennis and with Punishermax give us a Punisher book that very much feels like its own entity.

So, working with both Ghost Rider and The Punisher, we can see that Jason Aaron is able to bring a lot of the elements that worked so well in Scalped over to his work for Marvel. But in one way or another, both these runs operate on the fringes of Marvel, with mitigating factors allowing for an increased level of control and influence over the characters. How far then does Jason Aaron’s authorship extend over his work with Wolverine, one of the most popular and prolific characters in the Marvel Universe?

Of all the characters in the Marvel Universe, few are more difficult for a writer to make their own than Wolverine. His whole life story spanning back decades has been told and retold and made into its own spinoff ongoing series. He appears in about a dozen comics a month. Just about every writer who has spent any degree of time at Marvel has taken some kind of stab at portraying him. So when Marvel launched a new ongoing – Wolverine: Weapon X – written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Ron Garney, perhaps some questioned what else this series could possibly say about the character that hasn’t been said already. Aaron wryly acknowledges Wolverine’s prominence and the difficulties it can cause at various points throughout Adamantium Men, the first graphic novel collection of the series. On the first page of the second chapter, reporter Melita Garner proposes a news story about Wolverine, to which the editor replies with “forget it, he’s way too overexposed.” The story spanning across the last two chapters, “A Mile in My Moccasins”, attempts to illustrate how ridiculously busy someone who simultaneously works for several different superhero teams while also going on his own solo adventures would actually be. Aaron even attempts to rationalize this in a way that advances Wolverine’s character, suggesting this is all driven by a self-destructive response to the return of all the memories of the awful things he’s done throughout his life.

Looking at Jason Aaron’s run through Wolverine: Weapon X and Wolverine as a whole, it seems the key contribution that Aaron has tried to bring to the table is a new dimension for Wolverine’s character. This has taken the form of Logan gradually finding faith, tying once more into one of Aaron’s favorite themes. It becomes a lot more prominent with Aaron’s subsequent work on the character, but even at the very beginning of the run in Adamantium Men, Wolverine’s closing narration across the last few pages of Chapter 5 alludes to ideas of heaven and hell:

But maybe I’m wrong about hell. Maybe it ain’t down there in the depths after all. Maybe it’s up here with us. Maybe hell is that we have to keep going, keep working… keel killing, keep hating… keep watching everyone around us die. Maybe heaven only comes when we blink out and suddenly it don’t hurt any more and there ain’t nothing left to dwell on or fret over. Nothing at all. I have a hard time believing in heaven, but it’s easy to believe in hell. A place where people are tortured for all eternity because of the sins they committed in life? Judging by what I’ve seen of the world… that sounds about fair.

Oddly prophetic, considering that later Wolverine would literally be sent to hell. But aside from this, reading The Adamantium Men, there is not much to immediately indicate that this comes from the same writer as Scalped. Yes, it’s very well-written, as Aaron’s work tends to be, but quality is not exclusive to Jason Aaron, and can be found in other superhero titles in the Marvel Universe. So, does this mean that there is a limit to authorship in comics, that any sense of creative identity amongst even the best writers is overwhelmed under the constraints of continuity and visibility within a shared universe?

Not necessarily. Speaking on a purely subjective level here, Wolverine is not a character whose comics I’ve ever been particularly interested in. But I’m buying and enjoying Wolverine every month, and if you’d told me I’d be doing that a couple of years ago I probably would have laughed you out of the room. So whether it’s obvious or not, Aaron’s presence as writer does make a difference. Perhaps it does a disservice to a writer to reduce their authorship to a series of easily identifiable recurring motifs, when versatility is as desirable a skill for a creator to have as any. In fact, it could be argued that writing a good run with an established canon character requires the flexing of a whole different set of creative muscles than writing good stories with original characters. In the February 9th edition of Where the Hell Am I, his weekly column for Comic Book Resources, Aaron talks about what he enjoys in particular about working for Marvel:

I like being a part of these things. I like getting to play with Marvel’s biggest toys. I like having a voice in the creative direction of the company. And I like working for a company that wants a diversity of voices in that room and that wants to empower its creators to tell exactly the kinds of stories they want to tell.

In other words, I’m very happy where I’m at in my career right now, as a cog in Marvel’s machine.

For Aaron, writing for Marvel has its own set of perks and benefits, distinct from writing creator-owned work, whose benefits Aaron has also been vocal in declaring. I think an important point to take from this is that the way I originally approached this study was wrong. Maybe it’s inaccurate to view a creator-owned series like Scalped as Jason Aaron in his purest form, with this purity being increasingly watered down the deeper into Marvel Aaron’s projects take him. Adamantium Men is as much a Jason Aaron book as Dead Mothers, just a different kind of Jason Aaron book. One thing I’ve come to appreciate in all Aaron’s Marvel work is how much humor there is, which is a welcome surprise given how dark and joyless Scalped can be. And while Wolverine, Ghost Rider or The Punisher may seem to fit the angry, morally ambiguous badass archetype that doesn’t stray too far from the Dashiell Bad Horse mold, when Aaron gets the opportunity to write a full-blown, cheery, wisecracking superhero such as Spider-Man, he nails the character’s voice perfectly. That’s a virtue for a writer of established superhero franchises: to be able to capture a character’s voice and fit in seamlessly to a character’s mythology, in a way rendering yourself invisible. And if you’re able to do that while at the same time working in the same themes and ideas that interest you in your creator-owned work, as Jason Aaron has done, then you’re a very good writer indeed.

The shadow of Scalped does loom large over Jason Aaron’s Marvel work. But I think that has as much to do with how a reader familiar with Scalped reads books like Ghost Rider, Punishermax or Wolverine as it does with what Aaron himself is writing. Ultimately, I think that rather than making Wolverine more like Scalped (or making Invincible Iron Man more like Casanova, or Detective Comics more like American Vampire), the true benefit of having the writers of celebrated creator-owned projects doing work-for-hire gigs for DC and Marvel is that our perceptions of those books are carried over into these superhero stories. By having a quality creator at the helm, it offers a promise of quality, suggesting that these comics are being taken more seriously than just being exercises in continued licensing. And hopefully, in turn, a reader who enjoys that writer’s Marvel/DC projects will be enticed to try out their creator-owned work. Like how reading Punishermax is what finally prompted me to try Scalped. The realms of creator-owned and work-for-hire don’t need to be at odds: both can coexist, and even assist one another, as Jason Aaron demonstrates with his diverse body of work.

Studying Scalped: An Introduction

Scalped is the best comic in the world.

I think that’s as good a point as any to begin.  In my humble opinion, Scalped – the Vertigo crime series from writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera – is the finest ongoing monthly comic on the shelves today, and has been for quite some time.  The opening issue set the stage.  An angry young man called Dashiell Bad Horse returns to the Indian Reservation where he was born, and soon finds himself employed by Lincoln Red Crow, community chief and feared gangster.  But Bad Horse is actually an FBI agent, working undercover to bring Red Crow down.  A good start for a crime thriller.  But as the series has progressed, it has evolved into something much more complex, dealing with big issues like identity, heritage and destiny, and providing us with some of the most fully-realised, compelling characters in comics.  All of this is woven into Aaron’s meticulously-plotted tapestry, usually complimented by Guera’s stunning artwork.

I believe that, one day, Scalped will come to be recognised alongside the likes of Watchmen and The Sandman as one of the great comics of all time.  At least it should be, as in terms of both quality and technical innovation it has already earned its place in the canon of comic book classics.

So why is nobody talking about it?

Every time I read a new issue, I find myself eager to discuss and share the latest bundle of excellence the creative team have provided us.  But even on the internet, where the most obscure of passions are catered to, discussion is relatively scarce.  It’s like Scalped is the comic world’s best kept secret.  Indeed, when I went onto Google to run some searches on Scalped to see what was being said about it, I was disheartened to discover that the most prominent topic of dicussion as regards the book was arguments over whether or not it was racist.  I find the accusation as groundless now as I did then, and addressed the controversy at length in an article I wrote for Comic Book Resources one year ago:

Scalped and the Stereotype That Wasn’t There

But though I refuted the accusations of racism there, and have continued to do so elsewhere, I can’t help but feel that it’s a great shame that this is what I seem to have spend most of my time writing about Scalped focused on.  It’s just so reductive, ignoring all the richness the text has to offer in favor of lowest-common-demoninator squabbling.  So I decided to create an outlet for discussing at length the numerous elements of the comic that merit further exploration.

Recently, we’ve seen the old debate of diversity in comics flaring up again, with the likes of Steve Niles and Eric Powell championing a greater focus on creator-owned work.  What can we do to make sure creator-owned comics get more attention?  One small way we can make a difference is by talking about the comics we love.  And I mean more than simply saying, “This comic’s great!”  Enthusiasm is good, sure, but what’s even better is telling us why the comic is great.  Reviews are good for this, and I try to do my bit with reviewing the creator-owned comics I read.  But even this is ultimately just a subjective expression of opinion.  The next step is analysis, going beyond the quality of individual issues, and really getting into studying the themes and character arcs of the series as a whole.  Let’s start treating our favorite comics as literature worthy of deeper analysis.  Surely the first step of getting the sceptics to view comics as a legitimate, credible artform is to start doing it ourselves.

More than that, every piece of in-depth commentary adds to a body of work.  The more we talk positively about Scalped and provide in-depth commentary about the series on our blogs and sites, the less new readers will look up the series on Google and find nothing but arguments about racism.  I don’t propose that I’m some kind of literary genius or comics expert.  I know my understanding on art is lacking, and I probably won’t be able to talk about the excellent visuals with as much depth as I’d like – though I’ll certainly try!  I’m just a fan of a great comic, that wants more people to be reading it and talking about it.

Are you a fan of Scalped too?  Maybe you can help me out.  Write your own blogs discussing the series, focusing on whatever aspect you choose.  If you write something up, contact me – my twitter ID is johnlees927 –  with a link, I’d love to read your thoughts.  And it doesn’t need to be limited to Scalped: if there is a creator-owned comic you’re passionate about, show that you’re passionate about it!  Share the love!

“Studying Scalped” will be a series of commentaries featured within my blog that I’ll update periodically.  I’m getting the ball rolling with “The Shadow of Scalped”, a slightly-modified version of my latest column for Project Fanboy.  I’ll be posting that up here on my blog soon – watch out for it.  If you read Scalped, I hope you enjoy these blogs and are encouraged to reply and start talking about this series – I’d love to talk more about this series with other fans.  And if you don’t read Scalped… maybe this will convince you to give it a try, and see for yourself just why I think it’s the best comic in the world.

My Top Ten Comics of 2010

Hey all!

Been a while since I blogged, so I figured I’d post this up.  I’ve also posted this as part of my Comic Book Club column over on Project Fanboy, but I figured I’d post it here too.  Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

2010 was an interesting year in the world of comics. As the new decade began, both Marvel and DC seemed set to be making a move towards more optimistic storytelling and more heroic heroes, with Dark Reign giving way to The Heroic Age and Blackest Night giving way to Brightest Day. There was also a stated intention to move away from company-spanning crossover events, focusing more on smaller events within individual franchises. Neither promise seems to have held on long, with Brightest Day being as gore-addled and grim as any DCU story of the past few years and Daredevil turning evil for a while in Shadowland, and with Marvel recently announcing their latest big crossover event: Fear Itself.

It was a year where the comic book movie craze seemed to falter, with Iron Man 2 proving a disappointment, and both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim VS the World (undeservedly) underperforming at the box office. But on the other side, it was a year where a new frontier for comic book adaptation – television – began to be exploited more fully. The Walking Dead was one of the year’s biggest TV success stories, breaking viewing records for AMC by a substantial margin and already finding itself nominated for a Golden Globe. This has in turn paved the way for a glut of comic book TV projects, ranging from remakes of classic TV superhero shows of the past (Wonder Woman, The Hulk) to adaptations of thus-far untouched comic book properties (Locke & Key, Powers, Alias).

As ever, it’s difficult to provide a concise summary for the year in comics as a whole. There were a few great comics, some awful comics, and a whole bunch that fell somewhere in between. This list of mine is by no means all-encompassing. Instead, it is a deeply subjective reflection of my own limited, largely mainstream-leaning reading throughout the year. Graphic novels, mini-series’ and ongoing monthly comics were all eligible for inclusion as I put my list together. Here’s what I came up with:

HONORABLE MENTION: THOR

It’s been a turbulent year for Marvel’s god of thunder. After J. Michael Straczynski’s great run came to an abrupt, disappointing close, we entered 2010 with a sense of “Right, let’s hurry up and get on with Matt Fraction’s run, get Kieron Gillen in to tidy up Straczynski’s mess.” But then Mr. Gillen surprised people by coming onboard with a run that was very good in its own right, far exceeding the expectations of the transitional writer between two A-listers and in fact surpassing much of the latter part of the JMS run. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to those familiar with Phonogram or SWORD that Gillen would not disappoint. His first arc, “Latverian Prometheus” – in which hostilities between Asgard and Dr. Doom came to a head and Straczynski’s incomplete saga was wrapped up – was great fun, and delivered on both the action and characterization fronts. Arguably the high point of Gillen’s run came with the event tie-in Siege: Loki, which simultaneously explained some of Loki’s actions before and during the events of Siege and set up the next storyline for Thor once the event wrapped up, all while giving us a masterful insight into Loki’s motivations and treating us to some lovely art from Jamie McKelvie. It’s a shame then that the Siege tie-in issues of Thor itself were so poor they almost cost the title its place in the top ten. I don’t blame Gillen: the job of writing an arc set in Asgard where he couldn’t actually progress anything because the main activity was happening in the main Siege book, unable to even use any of the title’s main characters as they were also being used in Siege, was a particularly thankless one, which is probably why Straczynksi left the book in the first place. Thankfully then, Gillen got to end his run on a high note with an additional closing arc after finishing the grunt work that saw Thor and friends take a romp through hell. And now that Fraction is onboard (aided by some high-quality art by Pasqual Ferry), we’re getting the beginnings of what seems set to be an intriguing new era for Thor.

10. CHEW

After a stellar beginning that saw me rank the series at #8 in my top ten of the decade at this time last year, Chew seemed to falter slightly this year. Particularly at points during this most recent arc, “Just Desserts”, the series appeared to be lacking direction. But even in its weaker moments, Chew never fails to entertain, typically guaranteeing at least one out-loud belly laugh per issue. Rob Guillory’s art remains fantastic, giving the book its own unique identity, and with the last couple of issues it’s become apparent that John Layman has been carefully crafting a larger mythology, even when it appeared like the book was lacking direction. The stage has been set for Chew to reach new heights in 2011.

9. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN

Here we have another case of a title that reached heady heights in 2009 but couldn’t quite keep it up going into 2010. After the epic “World’s Most Wanted”, it appeared that Matt Fraction’s Iron Man saga had lost steam with both “Stark: Disassembled” and the current “Resilient” arc. With its almost-funereal pacing, Invincible Iron Man at times feels like one of the most decompressed comics on the market. But even when it’s at its most plodding, Fraction keeps things interesting, his mastery of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and co so refined that he can make an issue of them sitting in a café drinking coffee compelling reading: and there were a couple of issues that weren’t too far off that. But when the action does come, its kinetic, in-your-face, thrilling; Salvatore Larroca’s art (long a weak point in the series) greatly improving over the course of the year. Compliments also go to the fantastic Invincible Iron Man Annual, which gave us a Mandarin who was delightfully vile and free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. And even when the narrative is moving along slowly, you get the sense that Fraction knows what he’s doing, that he’s carefully setting the pieces in place for something explosive down the line. So Invincible Iron Man still has my attention, and my praise, going into 2011.

8. MORNING GLORIES

I almost didn’t include this in my list. This is in fact a belated edit, after finally getting caught up on the series. I blame the oversight on the frustrating lack of availability the series suffered in its early issues, what with all the quick sell-outs. I managed to get issue #1 on its third printing, but had given up all hope on getting issue #2, and as such had given up on the series altogether. But I finally managed to get a hold of that missing second issue, and now I’m fully onboard. Of course, the plus-side of all those sell-outs is that Morning Glories is positioned as the breakout indy comics smash of 2010, much like Chew was in 2010. But while it was the original high concept that initially sold Chew, with this tale of a group of 16 year olds trapped in a prestigious prep school with dark secrets, it seems like Nick Spencer is crafting the comic book equivalent of a water-cooler mystery more typically associated with television. I’ve seen many comparisons to Lost, but with its off-kilter weirdness, comically monstrous characters and constant sense of lurking dread, I’d say it bears closer parallels to Twin Peaks. In the first issue, Spencer introduces us to six new characters and within mere pages makes them all feel rounded and nuanced. Artist Joe Eisna, meanwhile, provides visuals that deftly shift back and forth from cartoonish to horrifying. Each issue deepens the mystery, offering more questions in place of answers. It remains to be seen whether – much like Lost – this approach stops being tantalizing and starts being infuriating, but for now this series is off to a highly promising start.

7. ACTION COMICS

Caught up in the tepid “New Krypton” saga for much of the year, it would have taken something incredible to hit Action Comics over the latter half of 2010 for the series to rank in this list at all. Thankfully, then, Paul Cornell jumped on as writer of the book, and made Lex Luthor the star. Each month, we see Superman’s arch-nemesis pit against another popular DC supervillain in his ongoing quest to unlock the secrets of the black rings last seen in Blackest Night. Witty, charismatic, even likeable, but also unquestionably evil, Cornell has made Lex Luthor into my new favorite superhero. And the Gorilla Grodd issue was surely one of the best single comics of the year. If the comic hadn’t been subpar for the rest of the year, Cornell’s run could have earned Action Comics a higher placing on this list. We’ll see what next year brings!

6. SWEET TOOTH

Once again, I find myself saying that a comic that was amazing in 2009 wasn’t quite as good in 2010: is that the theme of this year? Sweet Tooth had a brilliant opening arc, but the second storyline, “In Captivity”, didn’t pack quite the same emotional punch. There was one grim period where I briefly thought I had accidentally bought the same issue twice, as I read my new purchase and thought it was so incredibly similar to what I had read a month earlier, offering as little as it did in the way of plot advancement. “In Captivity” did, however, expand the mythology of the series, and introduce new characters to the mix. And despite not being quite to the level of “Out of the Deep Woods”, there was still plenty of emotional, heartbreaking story beats to be found. The current arc, “Animal Armies” has been a big improvement, and over the last couple of months Sweet Tooth has once again become essential reading. It’s just a shame the boost didn’t come earlier in the year, or Sweet Tooth could have cracked the top five.

5. KNIGHT & SQUIRE

I love this series so much. Three issues in, and I already feel totally immersed in this quirky, idiosyncratic and very, very British world that Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have created. A spin-off using characters originally revived by Grant Morrison, Cornell has nevertheless made Knight & Squire feel totally his own. Each issue so far has been so dense with in-jokes and subtle humor that they benefit greatly from multiple readings, and I’ve reread these comics perhaps more than anything else on this top ten list. If I were to use any word to describe Knight & Squire, it would be nice. This is a nice comic. Whenever I’m done reading an issue, I’m cheered up, I feel that little bit happier for reading it. And with the dark, emotionally-draining stuff that’s coming up as our countdown continues, something bright and joyful that captures all the weird, silly stuff that makes comics so much fun is certainly refreshing.

4. AMERICAN VAMPIRE

This actually started out a bit lower on my top ten. But as I wrote this summary of its merits, I kept on nudging it up and up until it finally settled here at #4, making it the highest-ranked new series of the year on my list. American Vampire debuted with much fanfare, billed as the first original comic written by Stephen King – that’s what first attracted my attention. And yes, King’s back-up story over the first five issues proved that the man’s creativity and knack for characterization and the building of dread is not limited to the prose medium. But the true revelation came with the core creative team. Immediately noticeable is the work of artist Rafael Albuquerque, producing some of the most gorgeous interiors of any comic on the stands right now. But more and more I’m coming to appreciate the input of writer Scott Snyder. It seems like every month, he moves the narrative forward in some way, be it through shedding new light on a character or expanding the mythology. He really shows an affinity for serial storytelling, with each installment both serving as a satisfying read in its own right, while having a cumulative effect as it builds on what came before and sets the stage for what is to come. And in the vicious Skinner Sweet, Snyder has created arguably the year’s best new character: one of the comic’s great pleasures is the way we are continually lured into thinking the eponymous American vampire could grow into an anti-hero, only for Skinner Sweet to turn around and do something utterly horrible and monstrous and remind us of what a villain he unquestionably is. 10 issues in, American Vampire keeps on getting better and better.

3. BATMAN AND ROBIN

A list of 2010’s best comics could very easily have been dominated by Grant Morrison’s Batman output. But in the interest of fairness, I limited myself to only including a single Bat-title on the list, and the winner by a narrow margin was Batman and Robin. The book was consistently strong throughout the year, but what really put it above Batman Inc and even the ingenious Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne for me was the concluding arc of Morrison’s run on the title: “Batman and Robin Must Die!” Serving as a kind of sequel to Batman R.I.P., we got to see Dr. Hurt and Professor Pyg make their welcome returns, and Frazer Irving floored us all with some spectacular art. But best of all was the long-awaited return of The Joker, and in particular Grant Morrison’s Joker, given that the Scottish scribe writes the character better than just about anyone. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman saga has made for one of the definitive superhero sagas of the decade and one of the finest runs in the character’s history, and I’m excited to see its next phase with Batman Inc.

2. THE WALKING DEAD

Aw, you gotta feel bad for The Walking Dead. Two years in a row now, it has ranked at #2 in my top ten. Looking at the series as a whole, I’d probably rate it as my personal #1 favorite comic. But based on the 2010 output alone, there is one comic I’d rate even higher. However, having said that, 2010 has still been a stellar year for everyone’s favorite zombie comic. We saw a shift in the dynamic this year as our survivors settled into Alexandria, the long sought-after safe haven they desired, populated by a community of largely good people striving to rebuild a sense of normal life. But the tragedy explored through the plights of various characters this year was that many of our survivors are so damaged by what they’ve had to go through to survive that they no longer have a place in a “normal” world. The result of this conflicted dynamic has been the steady escalation of tensions between the established cast and the new characters resident to Alexandria, all the while distracting us from the inexorable arrival of the zombie horde that now surrounds this “safe haven” as we head into 2011. “No Way Out” seems set to be a major storyline for the months ahead. When also taking into consideration the huge success of the TV adaptation, then I’d say it’s a great time to be a fan of The Walking Dead.

1. SCALPED

I heard alarming news lately, that – in the wake of the recent wave of house-clearing cancellations – Scalped is now currently one of Vertigo’s lowest-selling titles each month. That’s a real shame. Because it means people are missing out on one of the best books Vertigo has ever produced, and what was in my opinion the best comic of the year. 2010 gave us lots of quality developments within the pages of Scalped. The first few months of the year brought the heart-rending conclusion of “The Gnawing”, the storyline that has marked arguably the high-point of the comic’s history thus far. From there, the book adopted a change of pace (brave considering the amount of momentum build up off the back of “The Gnawing”) and gave us a collection of stand-alone stories that helped create a more rounded picture of The Rez and some of its inhabitants.

First came “Listening to the Earth Turn”, a single-issue tale of an elderly couple struggling to make an honest living on the outskirts of the reservation. This was a wonderful little story that challenged some of the negative assumptions that have been tossed in the direction of the series: that it suggests reservations are nothing but cesspits of crime and violence (the protagonists here are decent, law-abiding citizens) and that it is relentlessly bleak and miserable (this story had a happy ending). After that was a two-parter with the tongue-twisting title, “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, in which we got a little into the mind of Red Crow’s right-hand man Shunka, long one of the most mysterious members of the comic’s ensemble. The full page reveal of his man-on-man kiss was one of the more genuinely surprising page-turn twists of the year. Finally, and perhaps best of all, was “Family Tradition”, a single-issue tale notable on two counts. First, because it marked Jason Aaron’s return to the Vietnam War, the setting of The Other Side – the astounding comic that first made his name. And second, because we saw R.M. Guera (whose work started strong and has been steadily improving over the course of Scalped) reach a whole new level of excellence, with him delivering career-best work.

And after that interlude, it was back at last to the ongoing saga of Bad Horse and co. with “Unwanted”. Here, Carol Ellroy and the significant females of the saga, past and present, took centre stage, with Carol – having discovered she was pregnant at the conclusion of “The Gnawing” – agonizing over whether to have an abortion or to tell Bad Horse he could be a father, and in the process embarking on one of the few genuinely redemptive arcs we’ve seen in Scalped thus far. These issues of parenthood were further explored with the return of Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s deadbeat father, and a look at his difficult relationships with both his son and Red Crow. After that, we wrapped up the year with “A Come-To-Jesus”, another one-and-done, this time putting a spotlight on bit-part player Sheriff Wooster Karnow.

The unifying element throughout the year of Scalped was the raw, powerful, exhilarating writing skill of Jason Aaron, possibly the best writer working in the industry today. He’s done quality work over in Marvel in 2010 too, but his crowning achievement remains Scalped. I just hope that 2011 doesn’t mark the title’s cancellation, and that we get to see this epic narrative carry on until its intended conclusion.

So there we have it. My top ten comics of 2010. But I’m sure there are plenty of great comics I’ve overlooked. So let me know – what were your top ten comics of 2010?