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: Demon Knights #1

One of the things I like most about DC’s relaunch is the attempt to reach out to a wider audience beyond the superhero genre.  Now, I love superheroes as much as the next guy, but variety is the spice of life.  Amongst the New 52, there is a western comic, war comics, and most notably, an expansion of the horror genre (or, at the least, an injection of horror elements into superhero narratives) under the DC Dark banner.  But one of the exercises in genre diversification that most captured my interest was Demon Knights, DC’s foray into fantasy.

Up until recently, fantasy was not a genre that I was particularly engaged by.  Of course, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, the books and the films, but beyond the world of swords and sorcery just didn’t appeal to me.  But recently, some notable works in the genre have worked to change that.  There was Tears of the Dragon, the quality webcomic from Tyler James and Koko Ambaro, a tale that channels the spirit of The Princess Bride but incorporates a darker, tragic element.  And then I was blown away by Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels.  All of a sudden, fantasy seemed more exciting.  So, when news emerged that Paul Cornell – one of my favourite writers – would be tackling the genre with a tale of Jack Kirby’s Etrigan The Demon leading a band of outcast warriors in the Dark Ages, it seemed like a natural fit, and so Demon Knights very quickly found itself on my list of must-buy comics.

With the respective marketing of each title, I actually found myself holding a higher anticipation for Stormwatch, Cornell’s other series.  But I read Stormwatch #1, and while it was a perfectly enjoyable first issue, I think it was overshadowed by some of the other New 52 titles of last week, and didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations I had in my head.  Demon Knights does.  In fact, it surpasses them.  Demon Knights #1 is a comic laced with the wit, invention, and British charm I’ve come to love from  Cornell’s work in titles such as Knight & Squire, and it would seem Cornell has carried over an important narrative lesson  from Knight & Squire #1: there is perhaps no better setting to launch a series and introduce a cast of characters than a good ol’ English pub.

It’s a magnificently constructed set-piece, as our cast of characters – some familiar faces, some brand new – steadily congregate in a little village inn called The Victory in Rome, all while he know a fearsome horde of marauding killers is on an inevitable collision course with the sleepy rural community.  It’s an environment where people go to sit and talk, and so it allows for our ensemble to be introduced in quick, economic succession.  But Cornell skilfully gives each character their own distinct voice and personality, and very quickly seeing how these personalites will interact and clash becomes a point of intrigue.  Even though in some cases they only have a few panels to make an impression, each of our “magnificent seven” brings something to the narrative, as I hope to demonstrate:

I really am full of love for humans at this point.

One small touch that I appreciate, and an example that perhaps more writers could have followed in these supposedly new-reader-friendly #1s, is that in the opening sequence of the comic, Paul Cornell gives us a quick recap of our eponymous Demon’s origin, set against the dramatic backdrop of the fall of Camelot.  Etrigan is a character who I’ve enjoyed when he’s popped up in supporting roles in other books, but even I wasn’t familiar with his backstory beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia.  This reads very well as an introductory comic for someone who has never read an Etrigan comic before, following the story of how Merlin’s servant Jason Blood was mystically bonded with the demon Etrigan by letting us frst spent time getting acquainted with the pragmatic Jason Blood before his monstrous other half is unleashed in the issue’s climactic moments.  This lets Etrigan be built up as the heaviest hitter in a pub full of hard-as-nails badasses, but it also provides a nice twist, as while much of the setup seems to be about Jason Blood as a Bruce Banner figure trying to contain the savage beast within, when he does make the transformation, Etrigan is introduced as an eloquent figure with his own distinct personality, and his own human attachments.

Just one quiet pint.  That’s all I ask.

Though the comic is called Demon Knights, and though it is presented as a team book, judging by this first issue, it will be a series with two leading roles, the second one being filled by Madame Xanadu.  In the wake of this relaunch, Xanadu might be the character that gets one of the biggest boosts in status.  This week alone, she appears in two different titles, and is also slated to be on the roster for Justice League Dark, making her something of a lynchpin figure linking the various titles under the “Dark” banner.  While my limited knowledge of Xanadu always had her as a wise, enigmatic figure, here Cornell has fun giving us a younger version of the immortal sorceress, only a few hundred years old, seeming more human with her less sage, more ill-tempered demeanour.  I think we’re going to have a really interesting dynamic running through this series, a twist on the “unconventional love triangle” of Superman, Clark and Lois, in that Xanadu seems to be telling both Jason Blood and Etrigan that she loves them, and would rather they not change into their other form.  There’s a note of ambiguity as to which one she’s lying to… or maybe she has feelings for them both?

I have almost no ethics myself, you understand… but I like them in others.

Vandal Savage is a prolific DC villain that has shown up in a wide range of titles I’ve read, and while plenty of these have been great stories, Savage has never really stood out as a favourite of mine.  This, however, might mark one of my favourite appearances by the immortal (notice a trend here?) rogue, adding the wrinkle that, when you get over the fact that he’s pure evil, Vandal Savage is actually a jolly, personable kind of fellow who’s good to have a drink with.

The celts have odd ways.  Nod and smile.

Perhaps best known for her appearance in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, Shining Knight is a girl who has adopted the male guise of “Sir Ystin”.  We get a brief but telling glimpse of her personality here, as she makes a big show of being a man, overcompensating for everything – the showy armor, the massive sword, the giant pitcher of ale, and the manly boasts – but still looking totally ladylike with the way she’s sitting (a nice touch by Diogenes Neves, more on him later).  One particularly effective beat is that we see all the other characters immediately cotton on to the fact that this is a woman pretending to be a man, but politely play along with her ruse.  Nice to see such an enlightened view of the transgendered in medeival times!

Listen, I am Al Jabr.  I bring mechanisms that can make you rich.

Sadly, we see in the treatment of Al Jabr that in other ways, we share many of the same prejudices that some of us still have today.  Coming across as a suave, Middle-Eastern prototype for Tony Stark, we learn most about Al Jabr by how the barkeep treats him, regarding him with distrust and suspicion because of his ethnicity.  It’s a small beat, but it’s a nice bit of social commentary thrown in by Cornell, demonstrating the era where such unenlightened attitudes should have remained.

I come from an island where men are castrated… and women are pleased.

Enrichening the mythology of Wonder Woman before her new #1 is even released, Exoristos is a nice way of showing that Diana wasn’t the first Amazon to have the idea of walking among men, and not all of them are going to be as friendly and compassionate as her.  But despite her violent, aggressive nature, Exoristos’ abuse of the barkeep is in defense of Al Jabr, so in that way, it could be suggested that heroism seems to be naturally ingrained in the race.

But please, whoever you are… take this news to the village… disaster approaches!

Of our seven characters, the one we see the least of is the mysterious, horsebound archer we only get a single glimpse of, obscured against the glare of the sun.  But with the ease with which she takes out three of the horde, she seems to be a formidable combatant, and one I’m interested in seeing more of in the future.  I’ll take this moment to note that the majority of the central ensemble are women, and none feels like a “token woman”: each is given their own rounded personality, and they’re arguably the most interesting characters.  This is the kind of book the Batgirl of San Diego criticised DC Comics for not having enough of, so I really hope she gets a chance to read Demon Knights #1 – I think she’ll like it.

We find the source of the problem… and we throw dragons at it.

As our heroes gather, our villains plot in the distance, giving everything that’s going on at the inn an air of impending doom.  This strand of the narrative is deftly executed, with Mordru and the Questing Queen posing a threat whose scope is not quite yet clear.  There’s also a moment of unspeakable evil involving a baby I had to actually reread to be sure I was actually seeing what I thought I’d seen.  Yes, I did.

All this is not to say that, amidst all the characterisatio, nothing happens.  This is a meticulously plotted comic, making the very most of its 20 pages by ensuring something important happens, or someone interesting is introduced, on every page.  This is a very dense, plot-driven book, packing a lot of story into a single issue, but importantly, it never feels dense.

A big part of what makes Demon Knights such an easy read is the beautiful artwork of Diogenes Neves, whose large, open panels give everything an expansive, epic feel.  The colors of Marcelo Maiolo aid in establishing a warm, vibrant atmosphere within the pages, giving the art a classic, painted vibe.  Of particular note in the art department is the excellence with which Neves renders Etrigan.  Bolstered by a well-judged update of his costume, Neves’ massive Demon is one of the finest depictions of the character I’ve seen, even better than the also-impressive rendition provided by Tony Daniel for the cover.  Though I also have a soft spot for Jimmy Broxton, I’d venture to say that Diogenes Neves is arguably the finest artest Paul Cornell has worked with.

Overall, Demon Knights #1 is a towering success, easily the best of the new DC offerings this week, and up there with Swamp Thing and Animal Man among the best of the New 52 overall thus far.  The fact that all three of these are DC Dark titles further cements my opinion that this is the corner of the DCU to be most excited about.  I read this whole comic with a big, goofy grin on my face.  The biggest compliment I can give to Demon Knights is that when reading it, I quickly got the impression that this could be a spritual successor to Secret Six.  It shares quite a few traits in common with Gail Simone’s consistently excellent supervillain team book: an ensemble of bad, bad people who are actually quite nice when you get to know them, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a sense that, even when the protagonists are in the most dire of straits, this is a comic with its tongue ever so gently prodding its cheek.

I just hope that, like Secret Six, Demon Knights can avoid cancellation, and is given time to build up the cult audience it is surely good enough to attract.  Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves have crafted something really special here, and if you like diversity, if you’re up for trying something a bit different from the norm, give Demon Knights #1 a try.  I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.