2006 Comic Book Commentary (Part 3)

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Part 3 of our 2nd Annual SBC Reviewers’ “End of the Year” Commentary.

Paul T. Semones: Change was the word in 2006, with both of the Big Two kicking off company-wide revamps, expansions or shakeups of their superhero lines. In fact, so much changed, it’s really impossible to name a Best Ongoing Series, since there were so few major titles that didn’t receive big changes, get new creative teams or, simply, show up too infrequently to really be considered “ongoing” this past year.

The following are my Top Five awards in various categories, arranged Academy Awards style, where, I suppose, I’m an Academy Of One. (Cue polite applause.) In each category, I’ve named a bunch of worthy entries that all deserve mention, then named the one I think was best and why. More than once, picking one winner from among all the great product was a truly difficult choice.

And just for fun (and because there were so many ripe targets), I’ve named a Worst in each category. I think they are all pretty obvious “winners” of that shame, and so I’ve let them stand without any further explanation. Because really, why beat ‘em up when they’re already so obviously down?

But enough of that. There’s a lot of praise to go around.

Best Big Event: Nominees: Annihilation (Marvel); Civil War (Marvel); Infinite Crisis (DC); “Planet Hulk” (Marvel)

Winner: Annihilation:
Not just a year of change, 2006 was definitely the year of the Big Event, for better and for worse. Civil War and Infinite Crisis (the majority of which shipped in ’06) should be obvious nominees to fans and detractors alike, if for no other reason than the sheer ambition of each. “Planet Hulk” has been a good ride as well. But when assessed on a simple payoff-to-expectations ratio, no event was better this year than Annihilation. This space epic seemed to come out of nowhere, and appeared at first to be a shameless rip-off of DC’s Big Event formula, a la Identity Disc (come on, surely you remember that silly marketing stunt). But it was absolutely entertaining, every issue, every miniseries, without fail. It got me excited about characters I’d never heard of or read of beyond a guest appearance or two (holy cow, did you see what Nova did?), and reintroduced me to the incredible potential of the comic medium to tell unique, mind-bending sci-fi extravaganzas. You could practically hear John Williams scores thundering in the background.

Worst: “Spider-Man: The Other” (Marvel)

Best New Series: Nominees: Checkmate (DC); Irredeemable Ant-Man (Marvel); Lone Ranger (Dynamite); Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Dark Horse); Superman Confidential (DC)

Winner: Checkmate:
A very hard category for me to settle on, as all of the titles I’ve listed are incredibly deserving. But what puts Checkmate a step above in my mind is the quality and attention to correct detail Greg Rucka paid as he navigated his way through the bureaucracy of United Nations Security Council deliberations. I mean, really, how often have we seen hackneyed U.N. plots in comic titles where the authors and artists betrayed no evidence whatsoever they had ever watched even a minute’s worth of C-SPAN for reference? Rucka demonstrated a due diligence in researching his subject matter before translating it into the superhero genre, and I am consistently impressed. Sales are in the tank, and they shouldn’t be. This is tense, interesting, relevant and always plausible stuff. (DC, you have my permission to make a cover banner of that quote.) And there’s no limit to the toys the creative team can play with. Given enough support, this book could become the mortar that holds all the other elements of the DCU together. I’m behind it, 100 percent.

Worst: Wolverine: Origins (Marvel)

Best Refreshed/Rebooted Series: Nominees: Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis (DC); Batman/Detective Comics (DC); Justice League of America (DC); “Worldstorm Reboot” (Wildstorm)

Winner: Justice League of America:
A winner by default, really, though there are plenty of good things to say about it. Regarding the other nominees, I am enjoying the concept (if not, technically, the character) of Aquaman for the first time ever, although I suspect the shine may wear off quickly. The two core Batman titles perfectly brought the legend back to life and likeability, and the reboot crossover storyline “Face the Face” earns a nomination on that score; but even with Grant Morrison on intermittent duty in the refreshed Gotham City, the Batman universe already seems to be back to business as usual. The Wildstorm line has grabbed my attention for the first time ever, earning the entire “Worldstorm” reset a nod, but there’s been precious little product so far to give it a winner’s trophy. Which leaves us with JLofA, and really, that’s not a problem at all. Meltzer has proven himself to be, in my mind, unmatched in skill at writing a true ensemble book, where the characters are the focus and the author treats them as personalities, not power pieces for an action scene. Ed Benes is proving himself to be every bit the A-list artist the title deserves, and he’s putting the book out almost monthly. In 2006, that was saying something.

Worst: Flash: The Fastest Man Alive (DC)

Best Series Under New Creative Team: Nominees: Daredevil (Marvel); Robin (DC); Superman (DC); Superman/Batman (DC); Uncanny X-Men (Marvel)

Winner: Daredevil/Uncanny X-Men (tie):
Okay, I’m copping-out. This is really an award for Ed Brubaker’s creative vision. He’s become one of a handful or authors whose work I will pick up wherever it can be found. His plots are complex and realistic, and his titles have the weightiness of any Big Event book without all the baggage. Simply powerful storytelling that is equal parts grand adventure and real heart.

Worst: Nightwing (DC)

Best Mini-Series: Nominees: Batman: Year 100 (DC); Battler Britton (Wildstorm); Beyond! (Marvel); Eternals (Marvel); Transformers: Stormbringer (IDW); X-Men: First Class (Marvel)

Winner: Battler Britton:
Again, a tough choice, as all of these minis have far surpassed my expectations with high payoffs. Every one of these series was a book I treated as a one-issue “tryout.” If the first issue grabbed me, I’d buy the next, but didn’t expect to find myself committed. Well, all six of these minis are among my best reads of 2006. I’m going with Battler Britton for the trophy because I love Garth Ennis’ World War II works, and it had been a long wait since his last. Plus, the art by Colin Wilson was probably the best, most technically accurate World War II art I’ve seen since Bryan Hitch’s first issue of Ultimates (and even that got some of the aircraft wrong). War comics are definitely made for a niche fan base, and the low sales on Battler Britton only proved that. But it was a great year for war comics fans, with Joe Kubert revisiting Sgt. Rock, Nick Fury’s World War II history getting a little more fleshing out, and an unexpectedly good Team Zero mini from Wildstorm featuring the grim grittiness of Doug Mahnke’s pencils. So as Ennis and Wilson take the trophy for Best Mini-Series, I say let all the creators on this year’s revival of the war format take a bow. Here’s one fan who enjoyed it all.

Worst: Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Bludhaven (DC)

Nicholas Slayton: Well, that was cool.

2006 marks my first full year of comic loving goodness after getting into the “funny books” in the summer of 2005. This year has had some amazing surprises, anticlimatic disappointments, and has been a mixed bag for fans worldwide. Still, despite the letdowns, this year comics exploded with creativity, new ideas, awesome art, and some wonderful innovations. Throughout all the enjoyable moments of the year, there are a few certain things that stand out to me, in no particular order.

Union Jack: Christos Gage and Mike Perkins’ Marvel miniseries won over this self-declared DC fanboy. Take an ensemble cast of four superheroes, one witty intelligence agent, an army of supervillians, and stuff it all into London and you’ve got an amazing story. Gage’s witty dialogue was matched only by Perkin’s detailed, lavish art. In a market where people complain about decompressed, slow moving books, this title was as compressed as could be. With all of Marvel sucked up in a Civil War tie-in extravaganza, this was a fun, fast paced independent story. My only complaint? It was not an ongoing.

Infinite Crisis: Sure, it started in 2005, but this series really reached new heights at the start of this year. This is a book to the fans, wrapped around a story of epic proportions. There are so many great bits here, I don’t know where to begin. There’s the final mending of the relationship between Nightwing and Batman, the end to the Bat-Jerk Frank Miller created twenty years ago, Superman’s return to inspiration, Green Arrow’s “Brave and the Bold, huh?” line, Alex Luthor’s “I’m the only hero in a world of villains” motivation, Phil Jiminez’s stellar art, and the emotional gravitas Geoff Johns manages to pull from all corners of the DCU. Bloody brilliant.

Superman Returns: Yes, Kate Bosworth was miscast, yes Spacey was too campy, but this movie captured everything that makes Superman the finest hero. Brandon Routh gave a stellar performance, being the best live action Superman since Christopher Reeve. In 1978, we believed a man could fly. In 2006, we remembered why the world needs a Superman.

Aquaman #38: This issue has my nod for “Greatest Single Issue of 2006.” The story is simple: following the destruction of Atlantis at the hands of the Spectre, Aquaman wanders his ruined kingdom and reflects on his life there. There are no zombies, grandoise take-over-the-world plots, or even fights. Instead, there was an emotional story of a man who lost his home and family and had to keep going to save others. John Arcudi, Leonard Kirk, and Andy Clarke delivered one amazing, overlooked story.

Batman “Face the Face”/Superman “Up, Up, and Away!”: Sure, Morrison and Donner are getting all the hype for their potrayals of Batman and Superman in the DCU’s “One Year Later” world, but these are the stories that brought the icons into the new era of comics. In “Face the Face,” James Robinson penned a wonderful story of a Dark Knight returning to his home as a refreshed, new man. As Batman had to deal with the repercussions of his self-appointed replacement, he re-examined his relationship with Robin, Alfred, and Gotham City itself. Some say the ending was a copout, but I disagree. Robinson really got who Batman was: Bruce Wayne was a lonely man rediscovering his family bonds with his sidekick, while Batman was dark enough to grab the big bad by the collar and utter the single greatest Batman line in the past decade: “I’m on to you. I’m your enemy now. And God help you!” Brilliant stuff.

Meanwhile, Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek created a refreshing, modern look on Superman. This story had it all: a revitalized, truly evil, and yet oddly likable Lex Luthor, a helpful, dynamic supporting cast, and for four issues Superman never made an appearance! Seeing Clark Kent slowly readjust to being a hero after spending a year powerless and square off against his biggest enemy was inspiring. Also, let’s not forget the greatest line ever said in a Superman comic, Lex Luthor’s “I hate you. God, I hate you.”

Caryn A. Tate: My “2006 Year in Review” was a little hard to trim down to just five items. But below is my list, involving the year’s noteworthy positive and negative developments, in ascending order of importance:

5. Positive: Seven Soldiers series by Grant Morrison, with various artists: What an amazing series Mr. Morrison created. It’s mind-boggling to me that one individual was the main creative force behind such innovative, imaginative, and well told stories (not to mention the sheer number of pages involved). But I am most amazed that this creator made me care about characters like Klarion the Witch Boy and Shining Knight. I applaud DC for allowing Mr. Morrison the creative control to produce this series.

4. Positive: The encouraging influence the comic book industry is having in mainstream media and popular culture: It’s refreshing to see the huge influx of Superman kids’ toys, X-Men billboards, and superhero Halloween costumes of late. Ever since I started reading comics and realized how much potential they possess, and how everything from samurai epics to superheroes can have such real world significance, I’ve wondered why comics aren’t more popular in mainstream culture. I fully believe that a large portion of people who don’t currently read comics would love them—if they either became aware of them or put aside their preconceived notions about the medium and tried a few.

So it’s wonderful to see more of the effect that comics are having on people in general, but somewhat unfortunately, most of it is creeping into peoples’ daily lives without them fully realizing that it comes from the comic book world.

3. Negative: Late Books: There are so many titles out there with potential, especially some new books that could be some of the best on the shelves. Why, then, are comic book publishers like DC, Wildstorm, and Marvel allowing these comics to be released months later than they were intended to be? Of course, I shouldn’t ask why; I know, from reading and hearing interviews with the heads of these companies, what their reasons are. But it’s still ridiculous, and their answers don’t justify it to me.

Titles, specifically ones like Wonder Woman and All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder, are fantastic or at least have the potential to be. Putting creators like Frank Miller, Jim Lee, and the Dodsons on these books was a smart move, and had me interested. Now, though, at least with the latter title, I’ve had enough. It boasts two of my all-time favorite creators and a solid if odd story. DC would have had a loyal buyer in me, but they dropped the ball, allowing whatever factors to come in and make the book ridiculously late on a regular basis. I’m just not laying my money down for these kinds of practices.

The bottom line: Isn’t a comic book publisher a business like any other? They produce books that are meant to sell. Then they need to keep in mind that there are no guaranteed sales and start treating readers like you and me with the respect we deserve.

2. Negative: Too many lengthy storylines: I realize that a lot of comic book creators think that most readers enjoy 12 issue story arcs, or maybe they themselves just enjoy writing them. I can understand that. But I for one definitely don’t enjoy reading them. Whatever happened to concise, straightforward, effective storytelling?

Most long story arcs (those 6 issues or more) could be cut just about in half, because the six issues possess only enough actual story to fill 3-4 issues. Therefore, there are approximately 44-66 pages in a story arc like this that are basically filler, where not much happens. Have these creators forgotten that readers like myself are laying down $3 for each issue of their comic? Have they forgotten what it’s like to read an issue that’s disappointing because so little actually happens in it? Have they forgotten that some of us do still buy each single issue rather than waiting for the trade?

Of course I don’t expect every storyline to be one or two issues, and it’s not to say that I don’t enjoy long running plot threads or developments that span several issues or sometimes even years. But I do expect for my $3 to be well spent. I like to finish a comic and feel that I got my money’s worth, that a lot happened, that I’m blown away by a great story. That doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.

Hopefully, creators will realize that a lot of us don’t enjoy these long-winded kinds of stories…and hopefully, comic book publishers will start getting more editors on titles who actually edit the writers.

1. Positive: Top quality creators on high profile titles: I’m thrilled that publishers have finally begun to do the obvious here. I would never want all creators on books for a certain character, or even all high profile books, to have the same style or vision, but I do want them all to be highly talented and to have a vision for the character/book that fits. DC and Marvel, especially, have really begun to follow through on this.

Putting creators like Paul Dini, Grant Morrison, Richard Donner, the Kuberts, Don Kramer, Kurt Busiek, etc., on Batman and Superman titles has produced some amazing changes in these titles. I can say the same for Marvel putting Ed Brubaker on Captain America, Reginald Hudlin on Black Panther, and keeping Garth Ennis on The Punisher. This (combined with DC’s “new” back to basics take on their characters) has infused new energy into these books and the characters, and let me tell you, it’s palpable when you read a book like Action Comics by Richard Donner and Geoff Johns where you can feel their love for the character on each page. I don’t think, with creators like this, that they could ever produce a bad issue on these books, because they love the characters and truly have a vision for them that adheres to the characters’ roots.

Here’s to more of all of these positives, and much less of the negatives, in 2007.

Dave Wallace:

Most Consistently Reliable ongoing series: My must-read comics of every month haven’t changed much since last year, to be honest. Ex Machina continues to provide an intriguing combination of politics and superheroics, Daredevil has maintained its winning mix of pulp noir and tortured characterisation despite the handover from Bendis to Brubaker, and - despite its erratic shipping schedule - Ultimates still manages to pack a knockout punch with every instalment (I only wish it had been able to wrap up within the year). In 2006 I was also turned on to Warren Ellis' Fell, a dark, disturbing detective series with a knack for compressed, compelling done-in-one storytelling - all for less than $2 a pop. Definitely worth a look if you haven’t already picked it up.

Notable new books: 2006 saw the real-world political landscape seep into comics more than usual, with Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad justifiably garnering praise for its restrained mixing of the politics of the war in Iraq with a story about a group of escaped lions. Marvel’s Civil War brought a political angle to superhero comics, exploring the balance between security and personal liberty (albeit on a very superficial level), and Vertigo’s DMZ brought the language of warfare closer to home than usual in its depiction of a far more realistic Civil War on American soil. Elsewhere, the success of Fell paved the way for Ed Brubaker’s creator-owned Criminal which is showing promise despite only being a few issues in, and Marvel resurrected a C-list property in style with Charlie Huston and David Finch’s mean and moody Moon Knight.

Bru-ha-ha: 2006 was a breakout year for Ed Brubaker. I can only conclude that Marvel may be experiencing a Clone Saga among its own writers - how else to explain Brubaker’s ability to craft an excellent couple of debut arcs on Daredevil at the same time as he continues to steer Captain America through some of his most revered stories in ages, as well as taking on Uncanny X-Men halfway through the year? Brubaker also completed his Books of Doom and X-Men: Deadly Genesis miniseries at the beginning of the year, and rounded 2006 off by launching the acclaimed noir comic Criminal and the retro-noir fun that is Immortal Iron Fist with Matt Fraction. This sheer volume of work would be impressive enough on its own, but Brubaker’s comics seem to receive such rave reviews that the writer’s future success with the company seems guaranteed. Marvel must be cherishing the day that they signed him to his exclusive contract, and I could very well imagine DC trying to poach him back when it expires.

High-profile nosedives: At the start of 2006, the lacklustre finale of Infinite Crisis began a trend of disappointments that would continue throughout 2006. Civil War was met with a mixed reception despite the hype, Marvel’s Ultimate line floundered (with Ultimate Power, the Ultimate Galactus trilogy and the post-Millar Ultimate Fantastic Four all cited as evidence of a perceived drop in quality throughout the line), and DC’s flagship “One Year Later” concept seems to be stalling already. The greatest failings, though, were to be found in the industry’s relaxed attitude to timeliness and deadlines: DC’s two All Star books continued to be released on a less-than-quarterly schedule, each issue of Allan Heinberg’s Wonder Woman continues to be cancelled and resolicited, Batman and Action Comics both saw their new creative teams falter (necessitating fill-in arcs so that the books could catch up), and the Wildstorm relaunch - with many of its books already suffering from huge delays after just one issue - has become a byword for how to fumble such an initiative. Marvel also weighed in, with Civil War falling victim to penciller Steve McNiven’s inability to meet the book’s tight deadlines, Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk disappearing off the face of the planet, and Ultimates, Astonishing X-Men, and Daredevil: Father surprising no-one with their lack of punctuality.

The Ghost of Christmas Future: A Return to the 90s?: I’m sure we’ve all noticed the rise in the amount of variant covers and marketing gimmicks (3D glasses anyone?) that have crept into our comics over the last year. This, combined with the increasingly high sales figures of hot mainstream books like Civil War, should ring some alarm bells for longtime comics fans. Mark Millar recently wrote an article bemoaning the migration of comics talent to the movie industry, with dire predictions for the future of comicbooks. Whilst I don’t quite subscribe to his disastrous premonitions, the comics industry definitely has to be careful to avoid slipping back into the habits of old which almost resulted in the total collapse of the market.

Thom Young: Here is my countdown of the Top Five comic book events of 2006:

5. Batman: Dark Detective trade paperback by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin was published! Even though the series came out in 2005, I’m including it here because the collected trade paperback edition was published in 2006—and because I didn’t make out one of these lists a year ago.

While Batman: Dark Detective isn’t as great as their first run on Batman in Detective Comics back in the mid to late 70s, it was great to see these three historically significant Batman creators return to the character that made them famous as a team.

Initially, I was slightly disappointed with Dark Detective because I didn’t think Englehart had used historical elements to develop his story. I now realize (after re-reading) that Englehart based at least part of the Joker’s MO here on the Carmine Infantino-illustrated Joker story published in Detective Comics # 365.

Batman: Dark Detective isn’t Englehart’s best Batman work, but it’s still a very good Batman series that I would place in the top ten percent of the hundreds of Batman stories that have been published during the character’s 67-year history—possibly even in the top five percent.

4. Strange Westerns Starring the Black Rider #1 by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. For those readers who believe that they don’t like westerns, you’re in luck: this book doesn’t really come off as a western. It’s set in late 19th century New York rather than in the Old West, and Englehart’s version of the Black Rider owes more to such pulp characters as The Shadow (albeit on horseback) than it does to The Lone Ranger.

As with their recent work on Batman (see above), their Black Rider story is truly Englehart and Rogers’s collaborative return to greatness. They’ve said in interviews that they want to continue to tell Black Rider stories at Marvel by combining the character with other 19th century Marvel characters (creating a sort of 19th century Defenders or League of Extraordinary Marvel Characters). Here’s to hoping they get the chance to do so. If they can keep up the quality that they displayed here, their proposed new series would quickly become a comic book classic.

3. Sandman Mystery Theatre: Sleep of Reason #1 impressed me the more I thought about it, and it ended up as a late edition to this list. It’s difficult to tell for certain after only one issue, but John Ney Rieber seems to be aware of incorporating concepts from Romanticism, Francisco Goya, and Friedrich Nietzsche into an action-packed story of great verisimilitude. Additionally, Eric Nguyen appropriately (and masterfully) illustrates the story in a Romantic style that is detailed enough to create a sense of verisimilitude. (Click HERE to see my full review.)

2. Seven Soldiers by Grant Morrison and various illustrators. Morrison has created a classic Postmodern comic book series of seven interconnected limited series framed by Seven Soldiers of Victory # 0 and Seven Soldiers of Victory # 1. After a long delay, it finally concluded this year in an issue that many readers found to be incoherent. However, much like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, I believe the issue (and the series as a whole) does indeed cohere.

A Postmodern aesthetic doesn’t mean that “anything goes” or that “everything is great art.” It does, however, mean that an alternative type of order—an alternative type of “coherence”—exists within a work of art.

All Modern works of art (except Romantic works) adhere to Aristotelian logic in either the way they’re composed or organized. Romantic works are organized around the concept of an emotional or personal “truth.”

However, Postmodern works (such as Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series) do not adhere to either Aristotelian logic or emotional/personal “truth.” Yet, they do adhere to some sort of non-Aristotelian logic that is discernable through a close reading.

Seven Soldiers is a challenging series that demands much from its audience. I need to re-read all thirty issues at some point, and I’m sure the series will just get better with subsequent re-readings—as all great works do.

1. Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. Finally, 15 years after the initial chapters saw print, Alan Moore’s sexually explicity graphic novel Lost Girls has been printed in its entirety. It’s expensive, but well worth it.

No less an authority than the Canadian government has determined that the novel’s “portrayal of sex is necessary to a wider artistic and literary purpose.” It is indeed an outstanding work of depth and complexity—and a libidinous read.

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