When the history of this period of comic books is written, we might have to reuse an old term. What could this be but a new Golden Age?
Half the reason for the current glory days is the bottomless hunger for comic book properties in movies and TV. Not only are comics — both corporate and creator-owned — desirable, but they’re finally getting some goddamn respect. While actors making the early X-Men movies had to hide their comic books, now actual comic book art is now appearing in adaptations: like Michael Allred’s pop art in “iZombie” and David Mack’s moody painting in “Jessica Jones.” The dweebs have finally inherited the earth.
Fortunately, comics themselves continue to be a diverse collection of stories and art unlike any other genre. Much of the best work is creator-owned, thanks to the ongoing renaissance at Image Comics, but you can find work that’s weird, personal, cosmic and extraordinary at just about any publisher. Here’s a look at some of the best comics that crossed my path this year. I just wish I had the telepathic powers of Professor X or Gorilla Grodd so I could already know about the ones I missed.
Best Writer: Jason Aaron
Jason Aaron’s year would be an impressive decade for most writers. He continued his creator-owned southern noir “Southern Bastards,” a strong challenger to “Saga” and “Sex Criminals” for overall best title. He complicated his classic run on “Thor” by introducing former love interest and current cancer patient Jane Foster as the newest hammer-holder, boosting sales and creating a fresh and heartbreaking story. He took on Dr. Strange, showing how fascinating and weird this oft-neglected character can be. His new creator-owned series, “The Goddamned,” is a vicious, black comedy Bible story that almost makes me sympathize with the Old Testament God. His run on “Weirdworld” was an unexpected delight and his “Star Wars” series was the best take on Lucas’ characters in decades. What more can one guy do?
Most Necessary Hero: Ms. Marvel
Since the Paris attacks have made Muslim-bashing OK again for Moron Americans, I can’t think of a hero more relevant to the current world than Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel. This teen hero is squarely in the tradition of Peter Parker, while completely of the present. It’s refreshing to see Ms. Marvel join the Avengers and become a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. Let’s hope Kamala makes the leap to the movies well before Marvel Studios begins Phase Bazillion. We need her.
Best Artist: Tom Scioli
What artist/writer Tom Scioli and writer John Barber have accomplished with the ongoing “Transformers vs. G.I. Joe” series is astounding in its creativity, and most of that creativity comes from Scioli’s art, which might require a whole new Scott McLeod volume to fully appreciate. In fact, this is the only comic that comes with a monthly “commentary track” by the creators — and it’s quite welcome, because there is more going on per page than in most anthologies. Scioli has always been heavily influenced by the great Jack Kirby, but in this series he’s gone beyond Kirby to a type of non-realistic, busy but not cluttered, psychedelic yet tightly choreographed style that’s among the most experimental in comics. The unrestrained exuberance of Scioli’s art is a great reminder that even the best adaptation in the world will never have more to offer than the comics page itself.
Best Piss-take on Superheroes: “All-Star Section 8”
“Preacher” co-creator Garth Ennis is one of the most prolific and successful comic book writers — and one of the few who not only avoids superheroes, but actively despises them. This hatred took sharp, satirical, often disturbing form in “The Boys” and “The Pro,” plus this year’s “All-Star Section 8.” The plot is simple: a group of drunken, deranged, degenerate losers try to recruit a real superhero — such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern or Martian Manhunter — to their team. Thanks to John McCrea’s grotesque art and Ennis’ batshit script, the results show DC might have a sense of humor after all.
Best Single Issue by a Disappointing Company: Superman #39
In terms of sales and creativity, the past few years have been bleak for DC. Scott Snyder’s dreary, pretentious, overwritten Batman (no matter who wears the cowl) is horrific for anyone who’s read comics for more than a week, and most of the line (aside from bright spots like “Harley Quinn” and “Black Canary”) is depressing to longtime fans of the company that invented superheroes. But this issue by Geoff Johns, John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson is a gem, showing that the true heroism of Superman has nothing to do with laser eye beams or bulletproof skin. This one-and-done story is wonderfully analyzed by Oliver Sava, and it’s worth tracking down for anyone who wants to see what Superman is really all about. Maybe we should send a copy to Zack Synder.
Best Publisher: Image Comics
When I asked comic book store workers for their favorite comics, I noticed a pattern: many had trouble naming great comics that were not from Image. Image has been ruling the roost for several years now, just by following a simple formula: letting talented creators own their work and do whatever the hell they want. At Image you can read about gods returning to life as pop stars (“The Wicked and the Divine”), Canada going to war with America (“We Stand On Guard”), a barbarian carrying around a talking witch’s head (“Head Lopper”), a Presidential candidate who has literally sold his soul to the devil (“Citizen Jack”), 12-year-old girls fighting aliens in the 1980s (“Paper Girls”), a dwarf seeking Tarantino-style revenge (“Big Man Plans”), a 40-year-old woman stuck in a child’s body and a Disney-ish hell world (“I Hate Fairyland”) and a Superman analogue with a touch of Forest Gump (“Huck”). If you’re missing out on Image, you’re missing out on life.
Two Marvel All-new All-different Titles That Actually Live Up to the Billing: “Karnak” and “The Vision”
Marvel’s latest branding initiative — All-new! All-different! — has mostly been the same old crap. But a few titles have brought the distinct vision (no pun intended) of creator-owned books to the Marvel Universe. “The Vision,” written by Tom King and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, features everyone’s favorite android living in the suburbs with a family he literally built himself. It’s an oddball story that’s kind of like the Stepford Avengers. Then there’s “Karnak,” which is about an obscure member of the Inhumans who can spot the weakness in anything or anyone, much like your most evil relative. As always, writer Warren Ellis provides a deep, thoughtful look at a strange concept, while Gerardo Zaffino’s scratchy, kinetic art creates terrific tension and release. While Marvel has been a bit gimmicky with diversity lately (The new Hulk is Asian! The new Wolverine is female!) it’s nice to see them spotlight characters who are mentally diverse too.
It’s About Time Department: “Midnighter”
When Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch created the Midnight and Apollo, they were versions of Batman and Superman who happened to be gay. Fast forward to 2015, and the Midnighter is the first gay male hero to have his own comic, which happens to be one of the better titles of the year. There’s something inspiring about this full portrayal of a character who hasn’t had much depth in the past. If Midnighter can balance maiming bad guys and dating nice fellows, there might be hope for us all.
Most Relevant Comic: “Bitch Planet”
Debuting in late 2014, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Image series blends sci-fi, prison-sploitation, and hardcore feminism. Set in a world where non-compliant women are sent to a space prison, this series is a perfect critique and heightening of the crap women have to deal with every day. I half-expected “Let’s build a space prison for women” to be suggested during one of the recent Republican debates. Until the day men stop trying to control women, this will be an important comic, which makes it sound like some kind of dreary think piece — it’s not. “Bitch Planet” is just the perfect response to the Son of a Bitch Planet we’re all stuck on.
Best Genre: Science Fiction
While science fiction fans have traditionally been best served by prose and film, they should give comics a shot, because no other genre has been producing as much quality sci-fi for the past few years. Ongoing series such as “Saga,” “Trees” and “Letter 44” are consistently great. Marvel’s “Star Wars” line has been better than anyone could have imagined. Valiant’s “Divinity” (by Matt Kindt and Trevor Hairsine) was about more a lost astronaut returning to Earth as a changed being: it was poignant look at loss. “Descender,” written by Jeff Lemire, is the story of a boy robot in a world annihilated by robots, and the watercolored art by Dustin Nyguen is gorgeous and dreamy. “Nameless,” written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Chris Burnham, is sci-fi horror and a mega-mindfuck. It’s the kind of series you need and want to read over and over again, to find another layer of meaning and to bask in the incredible art of Burnham, whose work has kicked up a notch since his last collaboration with Morrison, “Batman Incorporated.” Other sci-fi worth checking out: Rick Remender’s “Black Science” and “Low,” plus Morrison and Frazier Irving’s “Annhilator.”
Best All-ages comic: “Bizarro”
Writer Heath Corson absolutely nailed longtime Superman villain Bizarro in this six-issue series which featured the backwards-speaking doofus as more of a confused, well-meaning innocent. Corson sends Bizarro and his “worstest friend” (best friend) Jimmy Olsen on a road trip to “Bizarro America” (Canada) and the hijinks ensue at a steady clip. The story is sweet, clever and absurd, but nothing beats the art of Gustavo Duarte, whose “Monster” is a book you need to own. Duarte’s expressive, cartoony, high-energy art is like nothing else in comics, and it’s supplemented by guest spots from comics legends such as Bill Sienkiewicz and Tim Sale.
Best Trend: Crazy Crossovers
Transformers and G.I. Joe? Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? The Flash and … Colonel Sanders? While most corporate comics continue to be dull homages to the status quo, when you smash two franchises together, the result is inspired insanity. One of the best examples was “Archie vs. Predator,” a 4-issue mini-series that featured a teenage Predator coming to Riverdale, fulfilling the dreams of anyone who ever wanted to see America’s eternal teens hunted and de-spined by a version of the space monster who fought Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers. Fernando Ruiz’s traditional Archie art makes for a wild juxtaposition with Alex de Campi’s writing style — honed on “Grindhouse” and “No Mercy — which is violent, witty and darkly funny. “Archie vs. Predator” shows how much fun corporate worlds can be when they collide. Also, don’t miss the one-shot “Archie vs. Sharknado,” another reason I wish the folks at Archie would share their meds.
Best Adaptation of a Comic: “Jessica Jones”
I’m cheating by going outside comics, but what the hell. I was a rabid fan of the Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos series “Alias,” which introduced superhero-turned-alcoholic-P.I. Jessica Jones. The series is utterly in the spirit of the show — it’s a great adaptation and probably the most feminist show on TV. Seeing the unbreakable coolness of Luke Cage, the manipulative fuckery of Kilgrave and the survival skills of Jones was a treat.
If my editor would let me keep writing forever, I’d also single out “Harrow County” for Best Horror Comic, Brian K. Vaughan for Co-Best Writer of the Year, “Dark Knight III” for Most Desperate Appeal to Nostalgia, Tula Lotay for Best Cover Artist, Jordie Bellaire for Best Colorist, “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir” for Best Bio, “Klaus” (an origin story for Santa Claus) for Best Concept and “MIND MGMT” for Classic Series That Concluded and Will Be Missed Desperately.
This is a glorious, giddy golden age, comics fans. Enjoy it.