Rude Chapbooks 02.02.12 | EXTRA: Top Tension

Five-by-five, fanboys and fangirls! After airing multifarious objections to such commonplace end-of-the-year fun, our crotchety columnist succumbs to the temptation of naming his choices for the finest comic books of 2011. As defined. With provisos. Lots and lots of provisos.



Enter disclaiming.
In whatever context, “best of” and similar lists have customarily prompted little if any interest in these precincts for various reasons. That said, perversely, what follows anoints the ten most noteworthy ongoing comic book series of 2011 in the views of “Rude Chapbooks,” PLAYBACK:stl’s prolix, pompous weekly column focused on floppies.
During the year just past, the single-spaced 12-point printout of such floppies purchased for potential assessment in that column—no comp lists support and/or subvert “Rude Chapbooks”—topped two dozen pages and a thousand individual comics. Even though the average human being reads nary a thousand comics in his or her lifetime, that printout hints at an abiding objection to exercises like this: its exclusivity. In this or that art form, that is, a given reviewer or critic, no matter how conscientious, can analyze only a fractional output. To cite three integral influences on “Rude Chapbooks,” dear reader, the daunting John Clute probably never studies more than a limited number of book-length fantasies and science fictions during a given year; the late, great Pauline Kael undoubtedly never screened every film lensed during her tenure as The New Yorker’s cineaste at large; and the magisterial Greil Marcus likely never listens to more than a paltry percentage of the music (popular or otherwise) recorded during any 12-month period. Caveat lector, therefore, constitutes the fundamental rule here.
In coverage of comics at the moment, of course, a rule nearly as fundamental involves the shotgun impersonation of fanboy opinion for the cool, high-caliber fire of the critical sniper. (Newsarama, in particular, specializes in such nonsense with daily, multiple “top 10” slideshows transparently designed to inflate clickthroughs for the website.) In that respect, in observance of whatever here remains of valid objective-versus-subjective quantification, a few provisos demand statement regarding this “Rude Chapbooks” attaboy:
·      Preeminently, it involves only comic books as such—the “rude chapbooks” defined with such snide tidiness by comics auteur Chris Ware. Ironically, it therefore disregards Ware’s own smug, continuing embrace of mass-produced, serialized objets d’art. (“Riddle me this, Batman! When is a signed lithograph not a signed lithograph?” “Simple, Riddler—when it’s just an overpriced poster!”) Sad to say, it also excludes work like Los Bros. Hernandez’s integral Love and Rockets, recently reconceived as an annual trade paperback resembling not so much traditional spinner-rack fodder as the latest edition of The Paris Review.
·      It considers only ongoing comics that appeared more than six times during 2011. This exclusion, naturally, eighty-sixes all one-shots and most miniseries, which nowadays increasingly lean toward the low end of a three- to six-issue range. By way of example, damningly, it bars from consideration splendid japes like Spidey Sunday Spectacular!; prodigies serialized in their own good time like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century; and minis and other series truncated below seven issues, whether by accident or by design, like Xombi. This exclusion seeks also to counterbalance a tendency that plagues many major awards (the Oscar, say) wherein releases in the latter half of the year, by their comparative novelty, enjoy an unfair advantage, however slight, over releases in the former half.
·      However reluctantly, it embraces a degree of squishiness all but institutionalized by the mainstream’s purposely brain-dead indexing, to use a technical term. That is, does the “New 52” Action Comics properly follow from the historic Jerry Siegel–Joe Shuster Action Comics? How does the “Johnny’s dead!” FF relate to the revenant “No, he’s not!” Fantastic Four? In what wise do “Point One” and “x.5” issues, as such, relate to one series or another? Do you care, dear reader? (If so, have you an aspirin or two to spare?)
That said, before the naming of the ten most noteworthy ongoing comic book series of the past year, please pardon the observation of a few trends, for good or for ill, in 2011:
·      Certain creators, titles, or both are striving to return the funny to funnybooks—refreshingly so, in a mainstream so tragically noncomedic. Fans who fret over the placement, outside or inside that famous unitard, of Superman’s panties likely deprive themselves of the non–“grim ’n’ gritty” joy of titles like Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors, Reed Gunther, Sergio Aragonés Funnies, Snarked, and Super Dinosaur. Their loss.
·      Both DC and Marvel continue to pimp imbecilic “events” or crossovers that more and more seemingly doom their midlists, let along titles nowhere near marquee status, like the splendid Secret Six and Iron Man 2.0. In a zero-sum game and a lingering recession, one can’t help suspecting that such oligopsony, beyond tandem purges, has exerted a textbook “chilling effect” on retailers’ orders and, thus, other publishers’ lists in toto.
·      Previously dependable—nay, exemplary—publishers of floppies, like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphic Books, are slowly but surely abandoning the rude chapbook for the trade paperback or the hardback. Their prerogative, to be sure, but saddening nevertheless—especially inasmuch as Fantagraphics, a quarter of a century ago, thrillingly redefined the form with comics like Eightball, Hate, and the aforementioned Love and Rockets.
·      Increasingly, creator-owned works at publishers across the board are forsaking the traditional ongoing for the serial miniseries, a trend which affected results herein and which will likely affect even more any hypothetical future sequels. Examples of particular note: Casanova: Avaritia, Criminal The Last of the Innocent, Hellboy: The Fury, Proof Endangered, Rocketeer Adventures, and Witch Doctor.
Aaaaalrighty, then! Having by now culled the readership of this particular column from the low teens to PLAYBACK:stl’s dauntless comics editor and the newborn on his knee—and perhaps only Baby Green at that—“Rude Chapbooks” ends the top tension by detailing, in alphabetic order, the most noteworthy ongoing comics of 2011:
·      At the moment, the finest title in the Avengers “franchise”—oh, pernicious phrase!—stars not Captain America or Iron Man or Thor (who’s technically dead once more right now, anyway). Rather, Avengers Academy spotlights not only a number of secondary paladins like Giant-Man, Tigra, and Quicksilver, but also a cadre of youngsters “at risk” who could develop into either the basest of villains—or the next generation of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. With various artists, writer Christos Gage has been playing this title like a superheroic Stradivarius; by way of example, as part of Marvel’s emetic Fear Itself “event,” he made it seem all too plausible that half the academicians would sacrifice themselves to save Chicago from being atomized. The strongest superteam series appearing today.
·      Although another publisher nakedly strove to institutionalize the relaunch in the year just past by dealing itself a full house, Marvel took the metaphoric hand in that customarily witless game with a royal flush entitled Daredevil. Aided and abetted by artists Marcos Martin and the Riveras fils et père, Paolo and Joe, writer Mark Waid revivified the so-called Man Without Fear, returning much of the character’s joie de vivre with nonpareil skill and without noticeably slighting any prior work on ol’ Hornhead. The new debut and the seventh issue, in particular, easily ranked among the strongest single issues of a superhero series in 2011. One can only hope that the length of Waid’s tenure on this title equals or exceeds his storied Flash run.
·      Dark Horse Presents constitutes that rarest of birds in the contemporary comics aviary: a workable anthology issued more than once or twice yearly. After resurrecting the series late last April, publisher/editor Mike Richardson fast increased its schedule from bimonthly to monthly; moreover, from the outset, he’s obviously striven to make the title a generic omnium-gatherum featuring many of the mainstream’s top talents—among them Howard Chaykin, Geof Darrow, and Carla Speed McNeil. Not every component of every issue will appeal to every reader, to be sure, but in the virtuosity of his intent, Richardson has made the revenant DHP an indispensable showcase for the mainstream’s kaleidoscopic potential—and with a cover price of $7.99 for something like 80 pages, indisputably the mainstream’s sweetest deal.
·      A near-future dystopia of signal intelligence, DMZ concluded as the candle on 2011 guttered and died. In its five-year run, writer Brian Wood and main artist Riccardo Burchielli molded that Vertigo title into a visionary exploration of this nation again riven by civil war—with New York City centered in all gun sights, figurative and literal, and with tyro photojournalist Matty Roth straining to discern a wintry gray truth amid a blizzard of blacks and whites. Amid a circumscribed but significant burst of proper speculative fiction in comics, wherein fanboys regard Green Lantern as SF, DMZ set a peerless pace and, in its sociopolitical acumen and integrity, might have pleased even the late Thomas M. Disch, author of classics like 334 and Camp Concentration.
·      As the man with the plan, writer Jonathan Hickman has rejuvenated Marvel’s storied first family—ironically, in the nascent FF even more than in the company’s renascent flagship title. That other title necessarily centers on Reed and Sue and Johnny and Ben, while FF expands its focus, often quite amusingly, to the extended family, including Grampa Richards and Uncle Doom. (Yes, Uncle Doom.) Hilariously, with no lessening whatsoever of the Lee-Kirby cosmic quotient, Hickman has inexorably positioned young Valeria and Franklin Richards as the series’ sub rosa stars. Against all odds, in fact, he and assorted artistic collaborators have made all meta-moppets of the Future Foundation—not, by the way, this series’ title, despite what the scriveners of one website seemingly believe—quite endearing.
·      Kid Loki—no kiddin’. At a glance, the notion of transforming Thor’s longtime nemesis and the Avengers’ accidental godfather into not only a mystically “de-aged” sympathetic character, but also the protagonist of one of Marvel’s finest titles seems absurd. Yet in Journey Into Mystery, writer Kieron Gillen and various artists have achieved just that feat. Tonally, this gem recalls nothing so much as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and approximates the lapidary splendor of Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram. As a saga of redemption, furthermore, it tugs at the heartstrings with such surety that not even an auditor as frigid as the ur-giant Ymir could resist. Like AvengersAcademy, otherwise, JIM incorporated with skill the Fear Itself “event”—whose influence actively interdicted other Marvels’ inclusion.
·      Harrowing. Perhaps no adjective better describes Scalped, writer Jason Aaron and main artist R.M. Guéra’s contemporary policier set in and around the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Month after month, it flashes with a switchblade brilliance and travesties the “grim ’n’ gritty” idiocy of much of the modern mainstream—including, at a competing publisher, another title written by Aaron himself. Beyond the Vertigo series’ profoundly conflicted protagonist, undercover F.B.I. agent Dashiell Bad Horse, and its increasingly sympathetic antagonist, mobster Lincoln Red Crow, Scalped features a cast and a milieu as bleak and believable as a stroll out the door of far too many homes in this beleaguered nation at the moment. In short, it’s set a new standard in comics noir.
·      In this medium, the weird Western probably long predated the 1972 debut of Jonah Hex in All-Star Western #10. Despite a robust generic history documented in Maurice Horn’s 1977 Comics of the American West, though, the day-following-night subgeneric success of that antihero’s creation likely stifled the genre in toto—till now. The Sixth Gun, writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt’s Oni Press ongoing, has almost single-handedly bootstrapped the subgenre and the genre alike, rescuing them from diverse formulas and frequent brutishness while still featuring some memorably ghoulish antagonists. Among other protagonists, including a golem sidekick, Bunn and Hurtt’s series stars a budding couple: spunky and quite beguiling Becky Montcrief and dour Drake Sinclair, an anti-antihero (translation: “hero”—he just hasn’t realized it yet).
·      Unambitious? Scarcely. Undiversified? Get real. Unhailed? By no means! The Unwritten achieves the unthinkable in this increasingly unthinking era: it glamorizes, with glee, both literature and literacy. Springboarding from the phenomenal popularity of J.K. Rowling, this Vertigo contemporary fantasy amalgamates Facebook and Twitter and so forth with Frankenstein and Moby-Dick, inarguably two of the least likely novels ever to appeal to a putative readership limited to a 140-character attention span. Writer Mike Carey and main artist Peter Gross here follow their laudable Lucifer with the tale of reluctant “wizard” Tom/Tommy Taylor, which, incidentally, in the personage of Lizzie Hexam, boasts the mainstream’s sexiest heroine. So addictive it rivals Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens for impact—the D.E.A. should be investigating The Unwritten. | Bryan A. Hollerbach

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