Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best of 2006: Comic books

I've got TV and movie top-ten lists in last week's Las Vegas Weekly, although I'll probably do an expansion on the movie list some time in the next week. But since I don't cover comics professionally, this list is a little more personal and much more narrow, reflecting only what I choose to lay out my own money for. I don't pretend to be comprehensive; this is, however, the best of the comics I read in single issues in 2006. (Click on the images for larger versions.)

1. Fell (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
This was at the top of my list last year after only three issues, and even though Ellis and Templesmith only managed to put out three more issues this year (fewer, I believe, than Ellis' notoriously slow Planetary did), it's once again the absolute best thing I read on a regular basis, and a reminder of how powerful and direct Ellis' storytelling can be. Each issue packs an incredible amount into its 16 story pages, and Templesmith creates the perfect surreal mood for the world of Snowtown, while toning down some of his abstract tendencies to tell clear, concise stories. It's creepy, suspenseful and clever, and each issue is a complete tale. Now if only it came out more often.

2. Runaways (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona & Mike Norton, Marvel)
I had worries about this book declining in quality with so many status quo changes, but Vaughan made every unexpected twist a welcome one, even the death of Gert, which opened up all sorts of interesting story possibilities. He's really developed these characters a great deal over the course of the two series, and it'll be a definite end of an era when he and Alphona leave the book after the next two issues. I have high hopes that Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan can keep it near the top of this list for next year, though.

3. Nextwave (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
It's weird to have two Ellis books in my top three, considering how much mediocre crap he still churns out (Down, Black Gas, Newuniversal, even the limping later issues of Planetary - all 2006), but this and Fell are so different that they could easily be from two different writers. Although this also tells mostly self-contained stories, it's the opposite of the somber, brooding Fell - it's pure superhero over-the-topness, with crazy humor and Immonen's great pop-art character designs and action sequences. Although many see it as a parody of Marvel superheroes, to me this is one of the few superhero comics that Ellis has done that doesn't radiate his contempt for the genre. It exudes a giddy acceptance of the ridiculousness of superhero stories and takes them to another level while actually remaining remarkably respectful of the characters. It could easily wear thin, though, and I think the fact that it's ending after issue 12 is probably for the best. I only hope that Ellis can come up with something equally insane to follow it up.

4. Fables (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham & various, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham has said that, unlike most creator-owned Vertigo longform series, Fables has no definite end in sight, and he plans to keep putting it out as long as possible. That might be troubling for some series, but Willingham has created such an expansive, multi-faceted cast and so many story possibilities that it's hard to imagine his ever running out of material. He managed to give Bigby and Snow, the early starring characters of the book, a happy ending of sorts while keeping them important to the overall story, and has made characters like Prince Charming, Cinderella and Boy Blue come alive in new and different ways this year. Buckingham's art remains phenomenal in its detail and design sense, both of characters and of the various fable worlds, and the fill-in artists are nearly as good. I'd be happy to see this book continue for years to come.

5. Fallen Angel (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
I was skeptical at first about the relaunch of this series, which was such a departure for David and for DC in its first run. And I didn't much care for Woodward's painted art in the first arc, although I like his work better now that he's using standard pencils and ink. Even though I don't think this is quite as good as the first volume, it's been a really fascinating read, exploring the main character's past and allowing David to indulge in many theological arguments that were beyond the scope of the earlier issues (and probably wouldn't have gotten past the editors at DC). It's not just religious musings, though - there has been some strong, spooky storytelling that was the biggest strength of the earlier run, and an interesting new dynamic between the Angel and her fallen (in a different way) son.

6. Y the Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra & Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Unlike Fables, this does feel like it needs an ending, so it's good that things will be coming to a close at some point in 2007. There were a few too many origin-type one-shots in this book this year that felt a little like filler, but the two main arcs of the year were just as exciting and compelling as this book has been since day one, and Vaughan has really evolved the series' world in logical yet unexpected ways over the last four years or so. I do feel like I know these characters really well, and hope for things to turn out positively for them in the end. Even if the explanation for the plague turned out to be anti-climactic, this book is as much about people as it is about ideas, and those people are as captivating to read about as ever.

7. The Surrogates (Robert Venditti/Brett Weldele, Top Shelf)
This mini-series wrapped up early this year, but it wasn't on my 2005 list and it probably should have been. It's a very smart, well-thought-out sci-fi tale that combines excitement and suspense with believable, intelligent futurism, creating a wholly new but entirely familiar world just around the bend. This is the kind of thing that I wish we saw more of in sci-fi film, and I'd love to see some daring filmmaker option this and not turn it into a soulless action blockbuster. I'd also love to see what promising new talent Venditti has up his sleeve next.

8. Ex Machina (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris & Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
It took me a little while to get into this book when it first launched, and it didn't make last year's list. But Vaughan has done a great job of integrating the political material with the vaguely superhero-ish action, and creating heightened levels of suspense and intrigue along the way. He's made the characters much more real to me, while also showing how what they do in each seemingly small instance has a larger resonance. The two-issue Ex Machina Special, with art by Sprouse, also proved Vaughan can go back and tell a great superhero action story while maintaining the sharp political tone. With his runs on Y and Runaways ending soon, this will clearly be the longform Vaughan work to keep an eye on.

9. Batman: Secrets (Sam Kieth, DC)
I've been a Sam Kieth fan ever since the days of The Maxx over at Image, and it seemed like he was on a slow decline for a while over the last few years. But this series brought Kieth an artistic renaissance in an unexpected place - a Batman mini-series - allowing him to explore his typical sexually fucked-up female characters and buried childhood trauma in the context of a (sort of) mainstream superhero tale. It also found him doing some of his best drawing in ages, and even if the ultimate wrap-up was a little disappointingly conventional, it still pointed to a brighter future for one of the industry's most underappreciated talents.

10. The Middle Man (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McClaine, Viper)
The second volume of this fun little adventure series was more cohesive and more entertaining than the first, with Grillo-Marxuach's quippy, zippy writing and McClaine's kinetic, cartoony art. At its best, it reminded me of what I used to love about Danger Girl, and any light, fast-paced adventure book with a sexy female protagonist. I don't know if there are any more installments of this on the docket now that Grillo-Marxuach is busy writing Marvel books and Battlestar Galactica spinoffs, as well as continuing to work in TV, but I'd certainly welcome them.

Honorable mentions: Powers, which came out of an endless storyline and a general malaise to prove that it can still be shocking and exciting, and X-Factor, which stumbled with multiple artists and narrative meandering most of the year, but has found strong footing in recent issues with the arrival of Pablo Raimondi on art and Peter David's adjusted focus on team dynamics and superhero intrigue.

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