Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 1

Finally. Illness, working two jobs, conference prep, and at last, here is the rundown for 2016.
16. BRIK
15. Agony
14. Dr. Strange
13. The Drawing Lesson
12. The Children of Captain Grant
11. Backstagers
10. Bombshells
9.  The Complete Wimmen's Comix
8.  Paper Girls
7.  Art Ops 
6.  Electric Sublime
5.  Black Widow
4.  Scarlet Witch
3.  Dr. Fate
2.  Faith

And here is the number one comic of last year.
Gene Ha's MAE is a delight that is, at once, all the things I like in a good comic. It's creator owned, originally self-published (through a Kickstarter campaign that included a lovely retrospective of Gene's 25+ year career in comics and illustration), currently in a successful run from one of the bigger publishers, Dark Horse, has a strong female protagonist, and is an exciting delight to read and to see!
From Gene's web page: "Once upon a time in Indiana… a 13 year-old girl named Abbie Fortell disappeared. Her younger sister, Mae was left behind to finish school, take care of her ailing father, and build a life without her sister. Eight years later Abbie has returned, claiming she’s found a doorway to a world of adventure and monsters. These tales are hard to believe — at least until the monsters show up too…"
The Kickstarter was followed by the first story arc of 6 Dark Horse issues, which concluded in November of 2016. The next arc is due in spring, and as Gene is scheduled to grace MNCBA's Spring Con (hooray!), may be available in time to have a chat with him about it.
Full disclosure: Gene has been a casual friend (and serious supporter of mine on Facebook) ever since I modeled for the character of Irma Geddon, who Gene drew as part of Alan Moore's Top 10 series in the America's Best Comics imprint from DC.
Ahem. Back to the book.
The book has just shone in every page. Gene has always been an articulate, well-spoken and just plain fun guy. That exuberance for life is the core of MAE
My only sadness concerning the book, and it's a minor one, is that the last issue of the first run was penciled and inked by someone other than Gene, Pauline Ganucheau. Her credentials, ranging from Star Trek to The Magic World of Gumball, are quite impressive. She's clearly a professional, and does a wonderful job, but she ain't Gene. I read issue 6 without looking at the credits, and from page one, it seemed the art was - well, just not the same. Oh, it worked fine, but I really hope Gene returns to full creative chores with the next story arc.
MAE is good, smart storytelling, integrated with compelling, imaginative and beautifully rendered art. I hope we're all still talking about new issues as they come out a year, two years, five years from now, and more.
Next: back to my art, I think... hmm...

Best Comics of 2016: No. 5 - 2

Only two posts to finally end this year's list. I know it's VERY late, but I want to post anyway.
5. Black Widow
There were a LOT of impressive books with female leads in 2016, and a surprising number from Marvel. It should be apparent by now that I tend to prefer DC books, so this year was a surprise to me in that respect. Writer Mark Waid and artist Chris Samnee have given Black Widow a feel that echoes the best aspects of the early Wally Wood Daredevil run, yet has a contemporary sensibility. Like the Scarlet Witch book (see below), this title is at least partially inspired by the lead character's presence in Marvel movies (sidebar: Captain America: Civil War was a good Avengers movie, but it wasn't really a Captain America movie to me).
Movie crossover? Tense Tony Stark lays down the law!

In Black Widow, a noir sensibility, coupled with an affection for action and spy movie tropes, gives the book visual eloquence and urgency. The first issue, a nearly wordless chase story, is one of the most fun single issues in a long time. Once the running stops, there's the good old heroine's journey to propel the storyline. In this case, the backstory of Natasha revisiting her childhood training camp is tense and heartbreaking.
As the story develops, we work around to the on-again, off-again romance with Winter Soldier. While there were rumblings in the fan press that good old Bucky would finally be revealed as bisexual, there's nothing overt (and very little that's covert) in the actual book to support that premise.
However, it does make me wonder about the distinctions between romance in books with male heroes and those with female heroes. Marvel's been very good about diversity this year, not just in terms of inclusion, but inclusion that fits the stories and characters, with a few minor exceptions (the gay Iceman fiasco comes to mind).
Even with that, the book remains a solid read. I've fallen a bit behind, but I continue to pick it up, and eagerly anticipate a binge on the title again soon.
4. Scarlet Witch
James Robinson has written some of the best superhero comics ever done, like Starman, and authored a few that are awkward, like Justice League: Golden Age. I've long championed his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film script, seeing it more as a Starman pastiche than as a Moore adaptation. I liked what he was doing with Squadron Supreme, but was quickly turned off by the vehement tone of the book. His C-3PO one-shot was brilliant.
In short, Robinson is back near the top of his game. In Scarlet Witch, he revisits and tries to clean up the backstory of Wanda Maximoff, whose tale has developed an alarming number of Marvel convolutions over the years.
As is the case in Black Widow, we have a journey into the heroine's childhood. But in this case, the journey is plagued by rocks on the road in the form of old nemeses, mentoring ghost witches, and revelations of and unknown family tree (once again, Wanda discovers she's not who she thought she was).
This book is visually alarming, in a good way. Wanda's new costume is brilliant. The covers, and some of the interiors, have arresting and compelling designs, often reminiscent of Coles Phillips' classic fadeaway paintings! Vanessa Del Rey is providing moody art that's still readable and tells a story, and Jordie Bellaire's coloring is a exquisite complement to both art and script.
Although it's working fairly well in Black Widow, I'm grateful there's little romance in this book. Not that the character doesn't deserve happiness, but it's refreshing to see a woman-centered book that isn't about romance.

3. Dr. Fate
Well, this does seem to be the year for magic, doesn't it? Between Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch and this book, magic has regained its position near the top of the comics pile, and rightly so. In the case of Dr. Fate, the magic draws from the Kimetic, or ancient Egyptian, belief system. Since the character was created by Gardner Fox in 1940, with an origin story modeled in part on the 1922 expedition of Howard Carter that unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen, this is no surprise. The surprise is that the character has never strayed far from its origins.
This incarnation of Dr. Fate, so to speak, brings the ancient connection home in a very different way. The helmet of Nabu, the source of power that possesses its hosts over time, is assumed by a young and somewhat naive college student, Khalid Nassour. The book alternates between his attempts to save the world from a flood caused by the ancient gods (which reminded me of the Peter Weir film The Last Wave), and (shades of early Spider-Man) trying to hold his life together and keep his secret.
Oh, yeah, and Kent Nelson, a long lost uncle as it turns out, puts in an appearance.
Slice panel showing
the head behind the mask. Brilliant.

I love the art on this! Paul Levitz's writing is as solid as it ever was here, with some brilliant characterizations, particularly Khalid's parents. But Ibrahim Moustafa's art is spot on. Stylized and angular, yet approachable in a good way, every issue of this now concluded (sob!) series shines. The layouts have nuances that reinforce plot points, in addition to being attractive and compelling, as in the cutaway panel in this page from issue 6.
I really hope to see this interpretation of Dr. Fate again. Like last year's run on Martian Manhunter, it put new life into a very old character.

2. Faith
I've commented a bit on the social aspects of this book in a fairly recent post, so I'm going to concentrate here in the superhero aspects.
To be a good superhero book, the book must be:
  • Rendered consistently with the writing
  • Written in a style that suits the character's demeanor and history
  • Be plausible. Not realistic, but plausible. There's a quantifiable difference.
  • Evoke an emotional response consistent with the intent of the creator(s). Admittedly, this one has a more arbitrary aspect than the others.
In that spirit, Faith succeeds with  a few reservations. The art is consistent and worthwhile superhero art. If I had to make an artistic analogy to Franics Portela's work on the series, it would be much of Dave Gibbons' work: clean and accurate, without a ton of flourishes, and with solid storytelling in panel and angle choices.
The writing by Jody Hauser really grabs me, so much so that I'm tempted to give her TV series Orphan Black another chance. I watched the first episode and it left me cold. Perhaps, in retrospect, that was a mistake. Hauser has been doing strong work on Faith. There are a few times when I wish Faith was not such a popular culture geek. As much as I liked the issues dealing with the Comic Con villain, it felt a bit played out after a while- could have been one issue instead of two and I would have been fine with it.
One aspect of the writing I do enjoy is Faith's relationship with Archer, of Archer & Armstrong. As has been noted in so many superhero books, it only makes sense that a superhero would enter into relationship with another superhero: unique commonalities and all that. I didn't have much use for most of the Valiant line the first time around, largely due to my reverence for the original Magnus, Robot Fighter and ensuing resistance to the reboot. But I did enjoy the original A & A run, both the Barry Smith and Mike Baron issues.
One aspect of the writing I do enjoy is Faith's relationship with Archer, of Archer & Armstrong. As has been noted in so many superhero books, it only makes sense that a superhero would enter into relationship with another superhero: unique commonalities and all that. I didn't have much use for most of the Valiant line the first time around, largely due to my reverence for the original Magnus, Robot Fighter and ensuing resistance to the reboot. But I did enjoy the original A & A run, both the Barry Smith and Mike Baron issues.
I've not been inclined to follow any of the other crossover titles with Faith in them. I tried one issue of the team book Harbingers, and I was disinterested throughout.  If Faith has significant appearances in future issues of Archer & Armstrong, I'll probably pick those up.
Faith remains a worthwhile book, though I'm a couple issues behind in current reading. I'm likely to stick with the book for a while.
Next: the number one comic of 2016 (at last!).

Best Comics of 2016, Nos. 11 - 6

An extra heavy period at the day gig slowed my writing, so I'm going back to the model I used last year: multiple books in every post. I will expedite matters, since I had originally planned on being done with these on the 16th of January. This is time-sensitive material, after all. In response, I am writing all the entries in three posts before making them public.
11. Backstagers
Despite all the backlash snobbery of the 90s, comics can be for kids. It takes nothing away from comics to have some dedicated to younger audiences. Regardless of the target audience, quality will out.
The Boom Box line has been producing  genuinely smart kids' comics for a while now. Their biggest success, Goldie Vance, has been on my radar for a while, and in addition to the title we're discussing now, I'm reading the trade of Help Us, Great Warrior, which is wonderful fun.
Backstagers is a very clever and humane comic about young adult theater. The book goes behind the scenes of a high school play, and discovers a world of magic, wonder and danger in the nether regions of the props archives. If you have to have labels, think of elements of Narnia combined with A Chorus Line. A profoundly inadequate description, to be sure, but it serves to get the conversation rolling.
Stars Kevin and Blake
at their self-congratulatory

The characters, even the self-absorbed and cruel show stars, are wonderfully engaging.  There's a mystery and excitement to every issue.
The colors are lush and vibrant. The book is smartly laid out. One of the things that chafes me is any creative team dumbing down their work, pandering to readers. This is particularly insulting when you're treating kids this way.
When I started teaching high school age kids, I quickly learned to respect their intelligence. Yes, yes, we've heard the arguments- kids' brains aren't fully formed, they lack sufficient experience to make informed decisions. What excuses do adults use? So many so-called grown-ups make much worse decisions than kids do, and with farther reaching consequences. The kids in Backstagers understand strategies, motivations and their own desires much more clearly than many who claim to be adults. Yet they're clearly still kids.
This is one smart book. I'm sticking with it.

10. Bombshells
Some surprisingly good comics have come out of marketing gimmicks. The 1960s  Captain Action book, the 70s (and 90s revival) Micronauts and Rom, Space Knight come to mind. DC created Bombshells as a way to sell statues, glasses and posters. In fairness, it's pretty cool merchandise, but we're here to talk about the story.
Bombshells shouldn't work but it does.This WWII alternate reality pastiche of DC superheroines and villianesses recast in curious ways is full of verve, smart art and impassioned writing. I'm sure a lot of people are buying the book just to look at the girls/women. In fairness, that's on my list too. I love the evocation of classic pin-up art that dominates the book. As one who's often waxed effusive about the virtues of pin-ups as opposed to porn, the art in the series delights me.
The take on Wonder Woman, usually my favorite, is good but not great here. I like Mera!
The plotting is a bit on the nose at times. Batgirl as a baseball player- get it? She uses a bat! Look at us, we're being clever!
Even with that, the story remains engaging. I was taken aback by the Stargirl storyline.The Russian aspect, coupled with the heartfelt self-sacrifice really resonated with me.
I continue to enjoy this book. I picked up the newest issue just today. Since it's a bit gimmicky, I had my doubts about how well it would sustain, but so far it's remained worth the money.
Batgirl in action, pre-hero!

9. Wimmen's Comix
My favorite cover from the series!
One of the frustrations of comic book binding is that sometimes you bind a book that later gets reprinted. Though I accumulated all the issues of Wimmen's Comix with a bind in mind, this collection came out before I could complete the project. I'm glad.
The blurb from the Fantagraphics website:
"In the late ’60s, underground comix changed the way comics readers saw the medium — but there was an important pronoun missing from the revolution. In 1972, ten women cartoonists got together in San Francisco to rectify the situation and produce the first and longest-lasting all-woman comics anthology, Wimmen’s Comix. Within two years the Wimmen’s Comix Collective had introduced cartoonists like Roberta Gregory and Melinda Gebbie to the comics-reading public, and would go on to publish some of the most talented women cartoonists in America — Carol Tyler, Mary Fleener, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Dori Seda, Phoebe Gloeckner, and many others. In its twenty-year run, the women of Wimmen’s tackled subjects the guys wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: abortion, menstruation, masturbation, castration, lesbians, witches, murderesses, and feminists."
So much work here to love! From the welcome inclusion of It Ain't Me Babe, the first all-woman comic, through #18, so many brilliant artists are included here. 
The good: the collection is very well archived and edited. There was a slight variation in format between some issues. This is rectified by allowing luxury margins for the art. There was also a wide range of quality in the printing of the original comics. Here, the art is cleaned up and printed on decent bright paper, with very good separations for the covers and the 3D issue (glasses included, of course!). They were even nice enough to include a 2D version of the 3D issue at the end of the book!
The bad: This thing is a brick. Two hardcovers, over 700 pages on heavy paper in a slipcase, weighing in at just over 7 pounds! I've questioned the formatting, which set the list price at $100, several times. This is 18 comics, plus the Babe issue and the 2D/3D issue, for a total of 20 comics. I have several custom binds of just over 20 issues, including some underground stuff. They fit neatly into one book. Did the reformatting demand the luxury treatment? I'm not sure.
Aside from the inconvenience for people who aren't avid bibliophiles, the price point of a deluxe volume might keep some people away from this collection. If it were in paperback at half the price, would more people buy it? This ranks at #436 in Amazon's Fantragraphics sales ranking, while the cheaper and smaller (and admittedly collecting less work and having been in print longer) Inner City Romance ranks at #328. That's hardly conclusive evidence. I do note that Fantagrphics did a paperback reprint of its Usagi Yojimbo 2 book slipcased set. It continues to sell briskly, while the HC is long out of print.
There's little material aside from the comics- one essay and some photos.
Either way, I hope for a more accessible printing, even though I do so love a well-made book, which this clearly is.
There's also a strange practical incongruity. The spines are flipped. The spine that reads "The Complete Wimmen's" is on book two, while the spine that reads "Comix" is on volume one! This puts the avid owner of a comic library in the awkward position of having it wrong no matter what she does. Either the spines are in the slipcase out of order, or the books are. Grr.
But the descender on the N in "Wimmen's" links with the ascender on the X in "Comix", making such a wonderful design touch, it's almost mandatory to leave the spines in that order.
Retrospective volumes are often given the prize/curse of being "important". This is more than an important book or a reflection of decades of feminist evolution. It's a fun and compelling collection of comics.
8. Paper Girls
Brian Vaughan has been a fixture on the comics scene for some time now. His first comic work appeared 21 years ago. Despite the unrelentingly downbeat ending, I adored Ex Machina, and found his take on Doctor Strange, The Oath, refreshing and surprisingly optimistic. I may be the only person in comic readership not drooling over Saga. Frankly, I find it too cynical, and its "fresh" ideas are reminiscent of things Philip Jose Farmer was writing 50 years ago.
That said, Paper Girls cheers me.
A Vaughan comic with bleeped out
swear words!
Maybe it's the support text, the letters pages dedicated to the delightful myth of being a paper girl, echoing the supporting text in Lumberjanes. Maybe it's that these girls prove to be so capable when they're catapulted into a nightmare world that's part future dystopia and part mythological realm. Maybe it's just that, for a change, Vaughan doesn't let cynicism and snark dominate the narrative, though there's still enough of both.
This book is cleanly drawn, fast paced, complex enough to engage the mind and a roller coaster ride. Having teen girls as protagonists without pandering to the stereotype of the month is also quite refreshing! In fairness, Vaughan's work on Runaways also handled teen girls well (I didn't mean that the way it sounded - ick!)
Cliff Chiang's art is clean, energetic and on point. He composes frames seamlessly, and has a clean line that brings Geoff Darrow to mind. Yet he's very much his own artist.
I've only discussed the plot in vague terms. This is a chronic condition with me. I want to give you enough to want to read the book. The book in question has time travelers encountering their younger selves, strange monsters from another dimension, and tons of late 80s nostalgia. Is that enough to whet your appetite?

7. Art Ops
Here's a clever idea. A spy agency dedicated to keeping subjects in their respective artworks. Of course, things go wrong, like Mona Lisa escaping and getting in a family way. Oh, and the son of the lead Art operative loses an arm, which is replaced with living artwork.
Art Ops is a lot of fun, but is a bit on the nose at times. It plays with reality, suing tones that echo Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, but lacks the subtlety and nuance of Morrison's work. Writer Shaun Simon brings a decent knowledge of art history to the book, but the story rarely goes much deeper than well-known and well-trod grand masters. It's a chaotic ride, but it doesn't go any place too scary once the reader adapts to the premise.
And really, it's not all that chaotic. There's an inevitability bordering on cliche to some aspects of this. The expatriated artworks take haven at the Chelsea Hotel? My, how novel. Nobody's ever used that setting as a metaphor for escape of tortured  souls before. Please.
Mike Allred's art, however, is expressive and on point. I'm on record as liking good fundamental comic art (and one of these days I'll try to define that), and Allred has long championed comparatively simple and anarchic comic art. Sometimes it works well. I  loved his work on X-Static. Sometimes it doesn't. His Fantastic Four run left me cold. Here, it's very effective, and just plain fun to look at. Rob Davis' fill-in on the penultimate issue, #11, lacked some of Allred's verve.
As alluded to above, the series is concluded at 12 issues. The first half is out in trade now. This chafes me a bit. This is a short series. Why break it into two books? Apparently marketing is more important that reader satisfaction.
Perhaps that's the crux of the biscuit. The underlying cynicism of this book is irritating, not because there's no place for cynicism in comics, but because of what it says about how the creators value art in the world. It's well worth reading, but there are other comics about art that tell better stories.
6. Electric Sublime
In contrast, here's a surreal adventure comic about art that shows a deeper understanding of art.
As far back as Frederic Pohl's novel Drunkard's Walk, and more recently the play and film The Caveman's Valentine, we have narratives dealing with the challenge of the mentally ill person who sees things as they truly are. Add Electric Sublime to that mix. While I have major issues with the whole "tortured artist" syndrome, it's used here in an interesting way, echoing the lost and lamented series Millennium. A central character is pulled from an asylum to use special abilities to solve an inexplicable puzzle- in this case, a winking Mona Lisa.
Main characters are trapped in the winking painting. In the so-called real world, mass suicides complicate matters.
Evoking many of the usual suspects of art history, this book strikes many of the same notes as Art Ops. But where the latter uses amplified guitars and buzzsaws, Electric Sublime uses a string quartet playing a Berlioz string quartet that sneaks in some Philip Glass riffs on the sly. In short, this is a much more elegant and nuanced look at art and its place in society.
Electric Sublime manages to address the whole "crazy artist" cliche while treating artists with a measure of respect. And the book is much more visually intriguing than Art Ops, using a controlled palette where necessary, and evocation of numerous styles from both comics and the "legitimate" art world. The book reminds me of artists ranging from Hannes Bok to Ben Templeton in places. And the use of the artist's pose-able wooden mannequin as a Greek chorus of sorts is quite charming.
The first mini of four books recently concluded. While there was a sense of resolution, it was clearly left open for a new series. I'd like to see more, and like to see writer Maxwell Prince and artist Martin Morazzo play with even more art history - tropes, memes, riffs, chose your visual motif. I just want more.
Klimt, anyone?
Next: entries 5 - 2.