Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fun Fifty of 2006, Part 5 of 5

You know how sometimes you invest many hours or maybe even an entire Fourth of July weekend listening to "Power 98's One Thousand Most Rockin' Songs," just waiting for them to get up to number one, where they've got be playin' "Stairway to Heaven," there's no other choice, any fool worth his drumsticks knows it's all building up to the Stairway, and then at 11:53 PM on the last day before you have to go back to school, they reach number one and it turns out it's Van Halen's "Panama"?

Yeah, it's gonna be like that.

(Everything that led up to this moment: #50-41#40-31#30-21#20-11)

10. SUPERMAN CONFIDENTIAL: Scheming supervillains. Erupting volcanoes. His first encounter with deadly kryptonite. Any one of these would leave you or me hiding under the couch, but Superman steps right up to the plate against 'em. So what's his real Achilles' heel? A spunky, classy, unpredictable woman named Lois Lane. This beauty of a story arc by Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale features gorgeous art and design (#2's juxtaposition of Kal fighting molten lava while Lois gets ready for a date is absolutely, affectingly sublime), tack-sharp dialogue and characterization (a wonderful scene where Clark expresses to Pa Kent his terror at trying to save people) and that element of the Superman mythology that makes it universal to all of us: the love of a man from another world for a woman who's so close and yet worlds away. The introductory kryptonite subplot at first seems secondary to the love story until I realized it wasn't secondary: it was parallel—in this story we see through Superman's eyes the two centers of his world: the literal world (a glowing green rock) and the spiritual one (fast-talking and sassy). Both are his greatest weaknesses.

9. 52: I woulda bet my piggybank fulla dimes that it couldn't be done: a weekly series that never got off schedule, never missed an issue, never brought a company's entire line screeching to a halt—and more important, a weekly series that entertained the heck outta me. While the big three take a year's sabbatical, DC's second and third bananas step up to the plate in seemingly-separate but gradually-intertwining storylines, gently spiraling towards reshaping the DC Universe in a slow but steady process the likes of which we've not seen before in superhero comics. The sheer number of issues has led to a handful of dud subplots and who-cares stories, but week after week there's some sheer entertainment value here, and while many of the mysteries are far from being solved, half the fun is the journey. My favorite issue has to be Week 24 (with hyper-aware Ambush Bug shouting directly to us about "52" and his relationship with Julie Schwartz), but this series has also made me like and appreciate Renee Montoya, the never-named Question, Black Adam and his clan, and even evil, evil Skeets in ways I'd never felt before. There's a lot of endgame work to be done in the last few months of the series and I've got my hooves crossed they don't drop the ball, but it's been a heckuva ride so far. Fifty-two!

8. RUNAWAYS: In a year where DC and Marvel heroes were getting knocked off left-and-right, incinerated by flying nuclear submarines or punctuated by Norse code, the most affecting and touching death was that of Gert Yorkes in the pages of Runaways. This death has colored the entire year as it spins into final arc of creator Brian K. Vaughan, but though the mood is somber this is still one of the most life-affirming and joyous superhero comics on the market. I've long said that Runaways needs to be the flagship in Marvel's outreach to get new young adults and teens on board with comic books, and this storyline is no exception. With the exception of repackaging issues in digest format, however, I don't see any marketing geared for the manga-fan crowd. That's a pity and a shame, and a wasted opportunity. Maybe new marketing to the next generation of readers will take more of a precedence once Joss Whedon comes on board, but even if Runaways never becomes the crossover hit it so richly deserves, it's still provided us discerning comics fans with one of the finest and realistic portrayals in comics of teens. With, uh, evil parents and superpowers. And a pet dinosaur.

7. COMIC STRIP REPRINTS: Everything I said about this being the best of all possible times to be a comics fan because of the extensive comic book reprint programs goes double for being a fan of comic strips in 2006, where the recent growing trend in beautifully designed and reproduced collections of classic strips really began coming into their own. Peanuts and Dennis the Menace got new volumes continuing their adventures, Gasoline Alley and Dick Tracy began definitive reprint projects...even the Moomins came back in comic strip-in-book form! My pers'nal favorite is the big-as-the-2001-monolith Popeye from Fantagraphics (an amazing design crammed with more high adventure strips than a donkey who's eaten Milt Caniff's portfolio), and there's much, much more to come: 2007 looks to be another powerful year with announcements of new editions of the works of Lynda Barry plus new volumes of most of the above. And scuttlebutt in the publishing world tells this little stuffed ear to the ground there's much more classic stuff to come, so start saving your dimes...truly this is the beginning of the Age of Classic Strip Reprints!

6. GUMBY: The most fun you can have with America's favorite clayboy without ever touching a rubbery toy! Bob Burden and Rick Geary's two issues of surrealism, whimsy, and fun are the perfect all-ages comics in the truest sense of the word: not just for kids but for everyone who's a fan of fun comics. Gumby falls in love, joins the circus, does the sombrero dance, thwarts the plans of evil clowns, gets turned into a golem, and summons of the spirit of Johnny Cash...all without wearing any pants! The joy and exuberance of these comics is contagious and infectious; I dare you not to crack a smile readin' 'em, and Geary's beautifully toned and suitably rubber artwork is spot-perfect for Gumby and Pokey. Sure, buy 'em for your kids...but you'll wanna read 'em too!

5. THE SPIRIT: This comic hits a high spot on my Festival of Fun '06 on the strength of...count issue. As a long-time Eisner fan, I certainly was holding my breath that Darwyn Cooke would do right by Denny Colt, and hoo boy! he exceeded my wildest hopes on every single page. This beautifully illustrated and smartly-written update of one of the finest comics of all time captures the elements that made the Spirit a classic: innovative and intricate design, casual and believable humorous dialogue, breakneck action, a gorgeous dame with an improbable name, and even the Eisner trademark splash-page representation of the Spirit's name in the artwork, brought smack-dab up to the twenty-first century by blazing it not across city buildings but in the shimmering pixels of a television screen. But Cooke's successfully pulled off an even more incredible update: Ebony is no longer a character we as fans feel we need to be ashamed of or defend with embarrassment. I know it's a cliché to say "Will Eisner would be proud"...but heck, I'll say it. I bet he's looking down from his drawing board up there and nodding in approval.

4. AGENTS OF ATLAS: It sometimes seems like there's a rogue division at Marvel slyly and stealthily sneaking comic books into publication which are so innovative and different from the normal company line that surely Joe Quesadilla doesn't even know they're doing it. That's the impression Agents of Atlas gives me, because who'da thought that in today's Civil War-ridden Marvel Universe populated by fewer than 200 mutants, a maskless Spidey and a long golden hair all grown up from a test tube, there'd be a market for a six-issue miniseries about secret heroes of the 1950s whose most significant story was a thirty year old issue of What If? Not me, that's for sure, but I'm happily on the Atlas bandwagon as Jimmy Woo and company untangle the Mystery of the Missing Ike, The Stereotypical Asian Villain and how Miss Venus manages to walk around without a top. It's sheer joyful fun that had me from the moment Gorilla Man barreled down a hallway with a gun in each hand...and foot. The I-never-woulda-figgered-it-out, wonderful and sublime puzzle-box ending was one of the finest conclusions a miniseries could have: a definitive end with a promise of more potential future adventures. Even if any future Atlas action is merely in my head and not on the page, this is a miniseries that made me oh-so-glad to be a Marvel Fanbull.

3. ALL STAR SUPERMAN: Grant Morrison knows. There's no other way to put it: he knows what we loved about the Silver Age. He knows what we love about comics today. And he puts 'em in a pot and stirs 'em around and adds a dash of absinthe when his mom's not lookin' and serves up one of the finest reinventions of Superman, ever. On the surface he and the wonderfully quirky Frank Quitely are simply retelling tales of the fifties: Super-Lois! Jimmy in drag! Krypto! But it's tinted with twenty-first century nanotechnology and hyperawareness of the tropes in comics that make the fur on the back of your neck stand up and tingle, in a comic that rewards re-reading like none other. Pay attention to the details: Clark's casual, uncostumed, cause-and-effect superdeeds in the background have a Rube Goldberg joy and brilliance to that makes this little stuffed reader giggle in glee. All Star has also given us this year one of the best Luthor tales in modern comics, a wonderfully kinetic updating of The Desperate Ones in which a never-supersuited-Clark and an arrogantly crowing Lex work their way through a riot-ridden prison, the signs of his safety right in front of Lex's burnt-off eyebrow, if only he'd look closely enough. The crown jewel of a great year for DC, and never mind the schedule: I'll gladly wait months for this.

2. SERGIO ARAGONÈS: SOLO: Permit me the indulgence of quoting myself and my original review: "not only the most fun comic of the week but will surely be on my year-end list of The Most Fun Comics of 2006!" (Hey, that guy's good!!) I mourn the passing of Solo for every one of its inventive and innovative issues that uncharacteristically for floppy comics, focused upon and celebrated the creators that make DC great. There was no more gleefully enjoyable issue in the series, though, than this fun-fest by MAD's manic Mexican master, a collection of several stories that didn't contain a weak panel in the lot 'of 'em: from confessing his murder of Marty Feldman to a wonderful autobiographical sketch of how he broke into American cartooning, Aragonés hits the heights every time, even in a goofball Batman story that's more MAD than the modern MAD magazine itself. Sheer brilliance from an amazing talent we don't see enough of these days. Hey Mark Evanier, bring back Groo!

1. NEXTWAVE: You sum it in one sentence and it sounds like a snoozefest, or worse yet, a 1980s Image comic: disillusioned superhumans working for a government agency discover their boss is a homicidal madman, and they turn against their employer and vow to take him down. But. This comic is super-caffeinated with over-the-top, outrageously gleeful violence, smartass dialogue, cheerfully irreverent reinventions of Marvel sacred cows, crab cyborgs, Broadway-dancin' Mindless Ones, Captain America's pee, Elvis M.O.D.O.K.s, and the most deadly version of Forbush-Man ever seen outside your Nyquil-fueled fever dreams. Politically-incorrect as all get-out. Widescreen in ways that would make the Authority weep. The best introduction page month-after-month. Gloriously intense artwork by Stuart Immonen, including cover designs that break the mortal bounds of comic book design and look like they would be well at home on the front of books from "real-world" paperback publishers. Warren Ellis's script and concepts gives unapologetic the Marvel Universe fanboys half-nelsons, and if there is one proof that this comic broke all boundaries, it's in the next-to-final issue #11 where half of the issue is two-page spreads (get a second issue so you can cut it up and paste 'em all end-to-end): I normally object to splash pages or two-splashes in comics as they advance the story precisely only one panel, but I spent more time examining and giggling over the Where's Waldo-on-speed brilliance of those big-ass panels than I do reading the entire length of some books. We've got one more big bang of an issue in 2007 before Nextwave goes bye-bye, but I, and you, are all the richer for a 2006 filled with its rich, nougaty, zomg-filled goodness. That's why NEXTWAVE is the most fun comic of 2006 and this is the The Best Line of the Year:

No, Miz Bloodstone: I think it stands for enormous fun.

Whew! When I started thinking about my Fun for 2006 list waaaay back around the time I picked up Solo #11 and Gumby #1, I pretty much had in mind a list of ten, or maybe a baker's dozen. When I sat down in late December with a pile of comics and a stack of notes and printouts of reviews it became clear my job of narrowing down that field to a mere hoof-ful was gonna be uphill work. The list became 20...and then 25...and oh no, I left out this one and that one, and like Topsy, the list grew and grew...until it became a Fun Fifty, and if I'd thought about it s'more I prob'bly coulda beefed (no pun intended) it out to a Sensational Sixty or a Entertaining Eighty. (Tell me your favorites, especially if I've missed 'em, in the comments!)

So, what have I learned? Well, I've learned that even in a year when I was dismayed much of the time at the state of the mainstream, in which one comic got me so hoppin' mad I saw red (and you all know what happens when a bull does that), in which I continued to express my disgust over the big crossover events of 2005 and 2006 and the sheer slippery slope the entertainment value of fairly expensive floppy books seems to be barreling down...well, I still found bucketloads of joy and excitement in the comics of 2006. That's my message to you all: whatever you enjoy, whether it was something I liked or didn't or didn't even mention, value it, treasure it, rejoice in it, have fun reading it. It's a wonderful hobby and there's more good stuff out there that meets the eye, even if it's a little black button one.

In 2007 and beyond, may your comics be fun, too!


H said...

I enjoyed this series Bully, especially your "most rockin' songs" preface talking about "Panama". I swear I remember something similar happening one year on a Philly rock station with some Peter Frampton song stealing the number one spot.

How could you put a book I've never read at number one though? It makes me feel inadequate as a comics fan for missing something good.

On the positive side, that Popeye collection sure is worth every penny isn't it?

EM said...

Yay! Moomins!

Bill D. said...

Rest assured, Bully, your #1 pick is no Panama. Nextwave is a Stairway all the way.

Also, I'm glad to see that the classic comic strip repackaging is really taking off. Lets keep our fingers (and hooves) crossed that whoever is in charge of such decisions decides that what the world really needs now is a complete collection of Crockett Johnson's Barnaby.

SallyP said...

Nice review,Bully. There ARE some good comics out there.

Your taste is similar to mine, and of course is therefore...excellent!

Bully said...

Oh man, I totally forgot to include Absolute New Frontier. (blushes with shame)

Unknown said...

I chickened out and just did favorite Marvel and favorite DC, but Nextwave is easily in my top three for 2006!

(The others? Catwoman and Gødland!)

Anonymous said...




SwanShadow said...

Much love for Agents of Atlas! That was easily one of the most interesting and enjoyable comics reads of the past year.

As a longtime Spirit fan, I'm mostly pleased with Cooke's update. I, too, appreciate the way he's recharacterized Ebony. His rethinking of the Ellen/Denny relationship, though... not so much.