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.

My Week in New York: Saturday

I got up even earlier on Saturday, setting my alarm for the scary time of 6am, and was down at the Javits Center by around 8:30am.  I think that’s as much a testament to how slow I am in the mornings as it is to my earliness.  Even at this time, however, the queue outside the building dwarved even the big line from the day before.  I could tell that Saturday at New York Comic Con was going to be crazy.

Joe arrived early with a fresh shipment of stock, which was appreciated, as we were starting to run down.  Indeed, by Friday night we’d sold all the stock of Red Ten and Scam we had, which I suppose is a good problem to have!  With the increased Saturday traffic, we managed to get a lot more people at our table and looking at our stuff, but we were still having some trouble really hooking people and closing the deal.  Joe and I couldn’t help but throw Glengarry Glenn Ross references at each other: “Coffee is for closers!”  “A.I.D.A.!”  It was also really interesting observing how master pitcher Tyler would alter and adjust his pitch for each book depending on who he was talking to.  To read about his technique, and more notes from New York Comic Con, be sure to check out Tyler’s awesome ComixTribe column here.

One great moment of the day came from meeting Stephen Blaha, who I’ve known for years as Superferret on Superhero Hype.  He bought copies of The Standard #1 and #2, and we chatted for a bit about forum and RPG stuff.  One of the great things about travelling to comic cons in America in recent years has been being able to meet these people I’ve known for ages through message boards, but finally being able to put a face and a voice to the username.

I took a minute to do a bit of shopping.  Well, I say “took a minute”, but with how insanely packed the show floor was on Saturday, a brief journey to nearby stalls that would have only taken a few minutes before all of a sudden required a commitment of quite a bit of time.  From the Midtown Comics booth, I picked up a few gifts for friends back home, the first volume of the Starman Omnibus for myself, and a copy of Voodoo Heart, a collection of short stories by Scott Snyder.  This was the prose novel that first brought Snyder to the attention of the comics world, and though it’s not readily available in the UK, I was keen to pick it up and check it out.  Plus, I could add it to my hefty pile of signing material for Scott Snyder, as I already had samples from just about every other project he’s worked on.

Scott Snyder has quickly become one of my favorite comic writers, and he was one of the people I was most excited to meet.  I had been periodically checking his Artist’s Alley table over the first couple of days of the con, but he never seemed to be there.  And on Saturday, he’d left a note at his table saying he wouldn’t have time to be there much, and the best place to find him would be at his designated signings.  The first one was at the DC Comics booth.  Foolishly, I headed over to that one – clutching my pile of Snyder books –  a mere few minutes before the signing was scheduled to start.  The line was already massive.  And, in a bit of a dick move, the guy about 3 people in front of me let me and a few others wait and talk amongst ourselves for several minutes before turning around, shouting “SURPRISE!” and flashing his I AM THE LAST PERSON IN THIS QUEUE sign, saying no one would be seen after him.  So, that was a near miss.

I only had one panel to attend today, which was the DC Dark/Edge panel.  I’m not reading many of the Edge comics, but for me, the Dark titles have been the highlight of the DC relaunch, and so I was really excited to find out more about what was coming up from them.  I was lucky enough to get a seat in the front row for this one, which was an added bonus.  Before the panel started, I spotted Joshua Hale Fialkov milling around, so I ran over to say hello.  He kindly agreed to sign my copies of Tumor and Echoes, as well as I, Vampire #1.  When you read how screwed up the protagonists in his books are, you may be surprised to learn that Mr. Fialkov is a warm, personable guy, and we chatted a little bit about the British NHS and the history of the I, Vampire franchise.  I must say, getting the Fialkov books signed would be a big weight off my shoulders.  No, I mean literally: I would no longer need to carry around two hardcover graphic novels in my satchel bag each day.

I spotted someone else before the panel started: Scott Snyder!  Perhaps a bit rudely, I shouted, “Oy, Scott!” to get his attention.  You can take the Glaswegian out of Glasgow, but you can’t take the Glasgow out of the Glaswegian, it would seem.  I asked him if he had any plans to be at his Artist’s Alley table that day, as I’d just missed him at his DC signing.  He said he’d be at a signing at Midtown Comics later in the day, but if I just had a few things he could sign them now.  I told him I had a big pile, so it would probably be better waiting for the Midtown Comics signing.  He complimented my (Swamp Thing!) shirt and asked me my name, and I was left very happy at having met Scott Snyder, who came across as just as friendly as he does online and in interviews.

A blurry photo of an Animal Man #3 page by Travel Foreman that you've probably already seen in hi-res.

The panel itself was great fun, as we got treated to glimpses of art – cover and interior – for a whole range of quality titles.  Scott Snyder gave us a teaser of a villain who shows up in the next issue of Swamp Thing who sounds really great, and an ideal foe for Swamp Thing.  Apparently it’s a guy with control over decay, who can find any small piece of decay in someone – even a bit of rot in a tooth – and make it grow and spread throughout that person’s whole body.  Plus, he’s allergic to chlorofill, so has to wear an oxygen mask at all times.  Sounded really cool.  Some problems with dodgy mics up on the stage caused some delays, though, so by the time we’d gotten through everyone and their books there wasn’t much time for questions..  But still, a really fun panel.

Learning my lesson from the last attempt, I headed straight from the panel to join the queue for Scott Snyder’s Midtown Comics signing, a good 20 minutes early.  The queue was still sizable, and with the way it stretched out across the con floor, we were causing a bit of a fire hazard, and we constantly had people having to break through the line to get past us.  But I did get talking to people in the line, so the time went by quickly enough.  However, my heart sank when I neared the front of the line, and the moderator informed us we could only get 3 items maximum signed.  I looked down with sadness at my pile of 10 books, and with great difficulty, chose 3 titles – American Vampire #1, Batman #1, Swamp Thing #1 – for Scott to sign.

When I got to the table, Scott not only recognised me, but remembered my name.  That amazed me, as I was hopeless at remembering the names of even the handful of repeat visitors at the ComixTribe table, so given how many fans Scott must have met, that was quite a skill.  Living up to his reputation as the nicest guy in comics, Scott recalled that I’d had a big pile of comics I wanted signed, and said I could leave the rest of my stuff with  him, and he’d sign it all at the end.  This was a really nice gesture that was very much appreciated.  I gave him copies of The Standard #1 and #2 as well, thanked him again, and made my exit with my three signed comics, happy at meeting one of my fave writers twice.

Returning to the ComixTribe booth for a little while, I was pleased to meet Cesar Feliciano, the artist of The Red Ten, who had stopped by our table to help out for the day.  He also drew up a great artist edition cover of The Standard #1, which I was very pleased with!

Heading back to the Midtown Comics booth, a little after the end of the signing, I figured Scott would have left my comics behind the table for me to collect.  But to my surprise, he was actually waiting on the floor for me to come back to give them to me himself!  Again, the guy’s a total class act.  He rummaged through his backpack, and produced my pile of books – Voodoo Heart, Severed #1, Severed #3, Swamp Thing #2, Detective Comics #871, Detective Comics #875, Detective Comics #879 and another copy of Batman #1 – all signed.  In a funny moment, he almost accidentally gave me a copy of Batman #2 a week before its release, and had to take it back upon realising his mistake.  To be honest, I kinda regret not really saying anything to him but “Thanks” a few times when I could have been asking all kinds of questions about what lies in store in the future for some of my favorite books – I’d had a question all prepared about his future plans for The Joker that totally slipped from my brain – but I was just too chuffed for anything to come to mind.  Scott told me he’d read my comics, we said goodbye, and I left VERY happy, having met one of my fave writers thrice!

Perhaps I was energised by my shamanic encounter with Super-Snyder, but whatever the cause, when I returned to the ComixTribe booth, all of a sudden I found that I’d at last got into a proper selling rhythm.  Things started to take a real upswing where, after a quiet stretch, I picked a random person passing by through the crowd, pointed at them, and shouted, “YOU!”  I asked them to come over to the table, and we ended up selling them a ComixTribe package.  But the real turning point was a seemingly small detail, where I found that moving from sitting behind my table to standing in front of it made a huge difference.  Perhaps it was a body language thing, where I was now more closely connected to the passing trade, but for whatever reason, all of a sudden I was much more successful in grabbing people’s attention and bringing them over to the table.  And we started getting a much higher ratio of people actually buying something once we’d attracted them to the table.

Tyler, Joe, me (in a pose oddly like a Vegas showgirl) and Cesar.

Something that I discovered was a real boon to my salesmanship was my Scottish accent.  Tpically, I hate my voice, and I have come to accept that in America a lot of people just won’t understand a word I’m saying.  But it seemed to really work a charm in getting people interested in our comics.  I joked that it was because people couldn’t hear me when I said, “Hey, want to check out some cool comics?”  As a result, they’d come closer and get me to repeat myself, by which point I’d reeled them in and had them in position to get a closer look at my comics.  Whatever the cause, people seemed more interested because I was Scottish, and I started playing up that Scottishness more in my pitching, starting to make a bigger deal of showing people the pages of The Standard #1 featuring The Frying Scotsman – which always seemed to get a laugh.  Even more shockingly, my accent seemed to get me some kind of sex appeal!  Apparently my grating Glaswegian brogue sounds exotic to New Yorker ears, and it seemed like the number of women we sold books to surged on the Saturday.  I was getting the flirty body language and everything – is this what it feels like to be a “playa”?  At one point, I gave the whole ComixTribe pitch to one young lady, and when I was done, I asked her if she was interested in any comics, but she say, “No, I just wanted to hear you talk for a bit.”  Oh my!

In a way it was a bit infuriating, business really getting going once the con was more than half over.  But better late than never!  After being absent for much of the first couple of days, and underwhelming in my selling to the point of practically being a cooler while I was around, I was relieved that I’d found an approach to selling that worked for me, and helped me to start pulling my weight at the table more.  I even earned the nickname “The Sellin’ Scotsman” from Tyler, which was nice.  I was really pleased to start seeing copies of The Standard shifting en masse, and I managed to sell people on the other titles on the ComixTribe lineup as well.

Towards the end of the con day, I took a walk down to Artist’s Alley, and met Greg Capullo.  I’ve been a big fan of his work on Batman, but my main incentive for introducing myself was my knowledge that Capullo is the hero of Jonathan Rector, my friend and artist of The Standard.  I got Greg to sign two copies of Batman #1 – one for myself and one for Jon – and gave him copies of The Standard, explaining how much the artist was a fan of his work.  So perhaps Greg Capullo is now a fan of your work too, Jon!

I’m pleased to report we were selling comics right up to closing time, and a little beyond.  Saturday was a huge success for ComixTribe, and the best day of NYCC thus far.  My one disappointment of the day was not getting into the after-hours Black Dynamite panel.  Infuriatingly, there was a Dragonball Z panel in the same room immediately after it, so I arrived to a massive queue, populated mostly by young anime fans who quite clearly had no interest in Black Dynamite.  I was in line with a couple of other Black Dynamite fans, and once it became clear that we weren’t going to get into the panel, things started getting nasty.  These other guys started getting into a confrontation with one of the NYCC volunteers, who didn’t help the situation much by replying with, “Well, if you wanted into this panel you should have been queueing from Avengers this afternoon.”  In my repressed British way, I wasn’t up for getting into a fight when it was quite clear that no amount of shouting would get me a seat in this panel, so I told the increasingly flustered NYCC rep that I appreciated it wasn’t his fault, and dejectedly left the Javits Center.

After grabbing a quick Subway for dinner (so much for making the most of New York’s cuisine) I met up with Joe, and we headed out to the Indy Comics After-Party, an invite-only event at Blaggards Pub we had managed to score invitations to.  However, we didn’t see anyone there that we knew or recognised, and with a live band playing, the music was even louder than at Tempest a couple of nights earlier, so loud neither of us could hear a word the other was saying.  After a while, Joe and I gave up and headed out, relocating to the quieter, nicer Twins Bar and talking about politics and other subjects for a bit.  Oooh, I’m such a party animal!

Of course, Spider-Man loves NY.

Overall, Saturday was an amazing day.  I got to meet some great comics people, ComixTribe and The Standard really started to gain momentum, and the whole day was just good fun.  I was already starting to feel sad that the con – and my time in New York – would soon be over.

NEXT: An ode to cosplayers.