We're back lovely audience, live from the Pantages Theater here in beautiful downtown Burbank, for the Third Annual Fun Fifty, celebrating all that's good and right and bright and fun fun in 2008's comics and other pop culture! (So out the back with you, Frank Miller!) As you remember, last time we counted down, we saw all manner of wonderfully fun, fantastic, and flubberlicious items numbered from forty to thirty-one. So let's hop right back in the middle of the fun and pick up the countdown with number thirty, shall we? (Take it away, Eric the Orchestra Leader!)
#30: SIMPSONS COMICS (In 2007: #33) For my money (earned honestly by selling seeds door to door and hoarded carefully in my piggy bank buried in the back yard), nobody crams more fun in every issue of their entire comics line than the good folks at Bongo Comics (the comics where you don't have to be a one-eared rabbit to appreciate 'em!), especially their flagship Simpsons line: Simpsons Comics, Bart Simpson, Simpsons Super Spectacular, Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror Special, Simpsons Summer Shindig, Simpsons Winter Wingding, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, Jessica & Ashlee Simpson, O... oh wait, I've gone out of control again. The Simpsons line of comics consistently does the TV series proudwith excellent laugh per page value, suitable for all audiences. Highlights of 2008 featured Lisa discovering (using the Simpson DNA evidence!) that she's not related to the rest of the family, Marge joins a roller derby, a fast-paced series of Hans Christian Andersen parodies, and two, count 'em, two Flash parody covers! Dense with jokes and consistently visually inventive, the Simpsons family of fine comics has just passed their fifteenth anniversary and shows every sign of going strong for many more: long may they provoke giggles.
#29: COMICS FOR THE iPHONE Your little stuffed bull about town is nothing without his snazzy cellular phone, and as you all know I'm a big, big little fan of fine products from Apple computer. So, in addition to not leaving home without my American Express, I always tuck my Apple iPhone into my Hello Kitty backpack. I can stay in touch with all my friends, I can listen to my music, I can watch videos, I can get my email, I can surf the web, and I can read comics. What?!? Have I lost my mind? Comics on your phone?!? Why, shore! One of the most fun things you can do with the iPhone (after having your calls tapped by AT&T!) is downloading applications or "apps" either on your phone or via the iTunes store, and a number of companies are digitizing and selling their comics in iPhone format for reading on the go. These won't replace the floppy comic format any time soon...swipe with your finger to flip through each panel, presented by itself, frequently trimmed or cut in half, but perfectly readable. You can buy, mostly for 99¢ a pop, Bone, Peter David issues of Star Trek (and in perfect fairness, they've corrected the technical problem I complained about here), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godland, Nancy Drew, and many more by several different companies. But in my (i)book, iVerse Media is doing 'em right: offering free downloadable #1 issues of many of their comics: Oz: The Manga, Ray Harryhausen Presents: Wrath of the Titans #1, Proof, Return of Shadowhawk, Ghost Whisperer...but for my (free) money, I've really enjoyed the iPhone free #1 issues of Atomic Robo (a Hellboy-esque saga of a robot warrior versus Nazis) and Neozoic (high adventure "in a world"...where the dinosaurs didn't get wiped out)...enough to make me buy the further issues. Check out the demo:
#28: DOCTOR WHO: THE FORGOTTEN Throughout the history of Doctor Who, we've met (give or take a Richard E. Grant) ten Doctors, and followed their adventures throughout history, the galaxy, and beyond. But how often do we get to see all ten Doctors? Well, for one, in Rich Morris's The Ten Doctors webcomic (#4 on last year's Fun Fifty), still ongoing and as fun as ever. But in 2008 we saw an authorized Ten Doctors of a kind: IDW's Doctor Who: The Forgotten, a five-ish miniseries that traps The Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones in a strange museum highlighting the Doctor's past exploits, forcing him to remember an adventure from his previous lives: one from each of his incarnations. Chock full o' your favorites (Jo! K-9! Tegan! Romana! Jamie and Zoe! Rose! Peri! Ace! And Tina Fey!*) and illustrated with verve and energetic authenticity (the First and Second Doctors' stories are in black-and-white), each flashback leads the Doctor closer to discovering the secret of his imprisonment. The series will be collected in trade paperback and available soon (click on the Amazon link above to pre-order it), but one of the great joys of 2008 was the monthly excitement of picking up Doctor Who: The Forgotten and traveling back in time with another Doctor or two.
*Well, a bull can dream.
#27: CROGAN'S VENGEANCE Pirates! Every little bull loves 'em. And so, as James Kirk observed, do you. And pirates in comic books? Why, that's even better. I met Chris Schweizer at SPX this year, and was immediately entranced by his debut graphic novel, Crogan's Vengeance. Flip open the front cover and cast your little buttons eyes on the endpapers: a family tree of the grand Crogan dynasty: adventurers, soldiers, pilots, ninjas, lion-tamers, and yes, a pirate. Each one of sixteen infamous Crogans will be featured in upcoming books in the series, in which a young contemporary boy learns the saga of his family in tales told by his father. You can't go wrong starting a series with pirates, of course, especially "Catfoot" Crogan, illustrated in Schweizer's brilliant, bold and crisp cartoon style: wonderfully distinctive faces and figures, vibrant energetic movement, bright solid blacks and wonderfully detailed seascapes and harbor towns. The art itself wouldn't be half as impressive if a fun and high-adventure story didn't accompany it: when the ship he's serving on is captured by pirates, Crogan finds he makes a better pirate than a crewmanbut can he live the life of a buccaneer and keep his honor? The natural comparison is to Bone, of course: a comic series with great kid appeal that adults will enjoy too. I do hope the Crogan series enjoys great success, because I wanna see the other characters teased at in the endpapers. Now's the time to get on board with one of the Great New Things: a wonderful writer and cartoonist's swashbuckling, rousing pirate tale...and if you're not careful, you just might learn something. (See Schweizer's site for a 26-page preview, and then just try to stop yourself from picking up the book!)
#26: JACK OF FABLES (In 2007: #5) Consistently entertaining, saucy, and funny, Jack of Fables seems to have spun its wheels a little in the past yearstill fine stuff, but not quite up to my high rating last year. (It's still one of the few comics that makes me laugh out loud, so don't think I've lost interest!) A high-adventure but violent and somber interlude in the Old West was an abrupt interruption to the storyline, and while it did allow Willingham and Sturges to guest-star Bigby Wolf (tirelessly tracking down outlaw Jack), this wild West Jack was even less of a admirable character than usual, dangerously skirting the line from rogue to villain. A three-part flashback history of the Page sisters took Jack out of the story for far too long (although he hiliariously complains in each of the issues' "next time" boxes) and now we're smack-dab in the middle of "The Books of War," with Jack as a self-important military leader while the fable and real worlds fall apart around him. We've just finished with extensive war stories over in Fables and this seems like a lite version of the same: I'm eager to get back to Jack on the road, having picaresque and bawdy adventures. Still, the writing and art are fine as usual, and every issue features a one-page interlude of the Walter Mittiest bovine of them all, the Sensational Character Find of 2006, Babe the Tiny Blue Ox! But, I wanna see the war stories wrap up (looks like we're in for a long haul of them) and Jack and Company head out on the highway again. Or, as Ray Charles mighta sang to our 'hero,' "Hit the road, Jack!"
#25: BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON Let me clarify the inclusion of Bottomless Belly Button on this list, 'coz this is a graphic novel that will probably make you exclaim "Clearly this is some definition of the word 'fun' I'm not familiar with, Bully!" Let me explain. Tho' the subject matter (divorce and failing family dynamics) isn't traditionally what you'd call fun, this groundbreaking GN by Dash Shaw...justly voted as the finest of the year by Publishers Weekly...is a beautifully-realized celebration of the breadth and power of graphic novels. This thick brick of a story would be lauded even if it were written in prose; that's how strong Shaw's writing is. (I think, without intentional hyperbole, that Shaw will eventually be discussed in the same breath and compared with fiction writers like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen...time will tell.) Despite its strength as a story that would fill a fine novel, this is a story that can't be divorced from its impressionistic visuals any more than Maus or Watchmen could be "novelized" and keep their innovative synthesis of words, symbolsism, and progressive comics art. That's what I find fun about BBB: you'll be weeping at sequences at the same time you smile in wonder at Shaw's subtle skill of making this a true graphic novel. (Want a preview? Here's Shaw's own animated trailer for the book:)
Art comics? Maybe. Amazing comics? Definitely.
(Truth in disclosure department: In my day job I work for W. W. Norton, which distributes Fantagraphics Books, the publisher of Bottomless Belly Belly. I woulda recommended this whoever had published it.)
#24: THE NEAR COMPLETE ESSENTIAL HEMBECK ARCHIVES OMNIBUS Oh, those knees; those marvelous swirly knees! There are many fine humorists in the comics field, but few with such an affection for, connection to, and commentary on the superhero field as Fred Hembeck. This big-ass collection compiles all of those classic Hembeck strip magazines that you've likely got squirreled away in an odd-shaped longbox (or maybe have on your want list), plus plenty of seldom- and never-before seen artwork, cartoons, illustrations and much more: 900 pages, fer cryin' out loud! Cheap paper, mildly shrunken strips and sometimes muddy reproduction are to be complained about, sure, but overall this is a collection you'll cherish, read to pieces, and guffaw at every strip along the way. Now, bring us a follow-up volume featuring Hembeck's strips from Marvel Age and his comics work for Marvel and DC (including the incomparable Petey: The Adventures of Peter Parker Before He Became Spider-Man. If you don't love Hembeck, you don't love comics, bucky!
#23: SUPERGIRL: COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE 8TH GRADE Eager for a female hero who doesn't show off her belly button? Have I got a book for you, pal! One of the highlights in DC's mixed bag of comics for younger audiences (Tiny Titans and Super Friends are a little too young-oriented for even this six-year-old little stuffed bull), the brand-new Supergirl comic strips the excess baggage from the Kara Zor-El mythos and polishes it to an animated-style brilliance: she's still the cousin of Superman, she's still disguised as Linda Lee in a world that doesn't understand her, and she's struggling with her toughest challenge: fitting in with her school peers. It's a kid's book but charming and entertaining for all ages: dialogue and situations that are actually funny instead of merely silly, expressive and stylized artwork by Eric Jones that makes Supergirl actually look like a young teenage girl. The angst is minor and played for giggles: this is a comic of joy and happiness, bright and enthusiastic, and I love it lots. Supergirl is only a six-issue miniseries, so seriously, folks, buy, enjoy, and support this comic so DC'll give us some more adventures of the most entertaining and enjoyable Supergirl in years.
#22: FABLES (in 2007: #25) Most of the finest Vertigo series seem to have a natural life of about 75 issues; telling their story and ending, or, in a few cases, staying behind a few years more than is probably needed. Seeing the War storyline about to finish in the mid-seventies, I actually did think Fables was wrapping up, and I was ready to greatly miss one of my favorite comics. Surprise! Suddenly Fables is...in a way not unlike the real world...as much about what happens after the grand fury and frenzy of war, as former enemies are reintegrated into society, casualties are mourned, conquered territory is uneasily settled and tender new alliances are tested. I oughta have expected that, because all along Fables has been a comic about what happens to the characters of fairy tales after the fairy tales finish. And, just like real life, not everybody lives happily ever after. And...for the moment but not much longer...Fables features the front cover artwork of James Jean, who produces some of the most beautiful covers in contemporary Big Two comic books. (James Jean fan? Well, you really oughta pick up Fables Covers: The Art of James Jean Vol. 1.)
#21: MINI MARVELS: ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS If I had to pick a Marvel Universe to live in, I certainly wouldn't pick Earth-616, a place where "Dark" is an acceptable adjective for a comic book. No, give me Earth-99062 (no kidding! That's the official designation!), home of Chris Giarrusso's joyful, colorful, glorious Mini Marvels: all your favorite Marvel heroes, now pint-sized for your entertainment. This digest-sized collection compiles a hefty selection of the Mini Marvels strips from the back of recent Marvel comics, many of which I'd missed the first time around (I never even realized that "The Iron Avengers" was an ongoing storyline). Giarrusso's work captures the wondrous crazy innocence of kids playing superheroes...except they really do have superpowers. Bright and colorful, this genuinely affectionate tweak of the Marvel Universe is a world where nobody ever really gets hurt. Thanks to Elephant Steve! (And, before I go, a rant at Marvel: Why did you let this wonderful collection go out of print so fast, Marvel? You dumbasses.)
Now, I know what you're saying: how can there possibly be comics more fun than those?!? Surely you're going to spend the next two installments of these awards ceremonies shuffling nervously from hoof to hoof on stage, Bully! And that's where you'd be wrong. Why not check in again next time to pop your eyeballs out at the unexpected return of one of my favorite superheroes of all time, a costumed crimefighter whose foreign escapades don't require a passport but probably shoulda had a byline, and a series that restored my faith in what I thought was a dead franchise! Be there or be octangular, Bully-fans!