It's interesting--when I sat down to do my Best of 2011 list for ongoing comics titles, it occurred to me that 2011 was a very odd year. With DC relaunching almost their entire line and Marvel renumbering, retitling or relaunching titles themselves pretty often, there was a legitimate chance that any "Ten Best" list for the year might be made up entirely of books that started this year.
It didn't happen, of course, but this list comes damned close, with only one title (Vertigo's I, Zombie) having more than twelve issues (of its current volume, of course) on the stands before the end of 2011.
Please note, this is one critic's opinion. As with any such list, this is an entirely subjective endeavor and most readers will disagree with the list in its entirety even if they agree with many or most of the titles; feel free to use the comments thread to tell me how wrong I am, but try and be polite about it. Remember that even though I've got some controversial picks in here and maybe ignored some of your favorites, I've tried to ground it in critical and artistic acclaim. Titles that I enjoy very, very much on a monthly basis (such as Justice League International or Savage Dragon, the two I read before anything else) didn't make the list, partly in order to make way for titles like Action Comics and Animal Man which are not as dear to me but simply excellent examples of sequential art, based on the consensus of just about every fan and critic alive. There is, of course, nothing that I dislike on this list, though; the aforementioned titles would certainly be in any top 20 I were to make, if not the top ten.
There will doubtless be some sense that Marvel has been slighted here as well, and certainly part of that is that I'm simply not a regular Marvel reader. I tried to pick up a few issues of books like X-Force, Amazing Spider-Man and FF in order to see if I was missing something. The fact is, 2011 has been a great year not only for DC but for comics at large. There isn't a lot at Marvel that speaks to me as a reader nowadays, and there's simply too much excitement built up around the New 52, and too many great books coming out of it, to artificially try to create parity in the review process. By all means, Marvel readers, chime in with your suggestions for what fantastic books I'm overlooking. 2012 is right around the corner and who knows what will be the best books of that year? Certainly this list would have been inconceivable 12 months ago.
Ultimately what this list comes down to is that the book has to be a good comic. These comics are smart, well-done, entertaining and on a good day move sequential art along as a medium (or at least stand out as a great examples of the genre they're in).
Visionary creator Grant Morrison, best known to Superman readers as the guy who shattered expectations with All-Star Superman a few years back, finally got a chance to write the ongoing, monthly Superman title he's wanted to write since at least 1999. With DC's relaunch, the marriage was out the window and Morrison was able to put his own spin not just on Superman, but on a Superman with a decidedly Golden Age flavor--less powerful, less experienced, less godlike and more willing to fly in the face of the law or conventional wisdom. Morrison has described his Superman as more Springsteen than Boy Scout--and one would assume he's talking the Ghost of Tom Joad-era, "fight-for-the-workin'-man" Springsteen. It was a good look on The Boss, and it works well for The Big Blue Boyscout as well.
Rags Morales's expressive faces were a perfect fit for this kind of Superman. Not only do we have a Man of Steel who's frequently seen as getting angry, tired or having fun in a way that a more "traditional" Superman rarely does, but we've got a supporting cast who are constantly looking at him with fear or wonder.
The collaboration, too, is greater than the sum of its parts. Prior to reading the first issue, it was easy to be a touch skeptical of Morales on Superman--while he's an unquestionably talented storyteller, I've never been blown away by the way he depicted Superman in the past--but after four issues, it's going to be a little sad to see someone else--even someone as talented as Andy Kubert--take over the title for a few months. The pair are have turned one of the year's most anticipated new titles into arguably the year's most important and successful relaunch, rejuvenating Superman both literally and spiritually. It lived up to its seemingly impossible hype and left readers more enamored of the first superhero than they've been in more than a decade.
Chris Roberson proved his chops to a mainstream audience by pinch-hitting on the Superman titles this year. Sandwiched between the departure of J.M.S. and the New 52 relaunch, he still managed to distinguish himself with some great storytelling and left many fans wondering what else of his they could get their hands on when he was, bizarrely, not onboard for a relaunch title of his own.
One easy answer? iZombie. His creator-owned title, published through DC's Vertigo imprint with legendary Madman creator Mike Allred on art (most of the time), has been a consistently entertaining read since it debuted last year. A light-hearted take on supernatural storytelling but told with real consequences, iZombie manages to be one of the best horror comics on the market (with no disrespect meant to Vertigo's other terrific horror book, American Vampire, or to any of a number of similar publications which are on the list) month in and month out.
There seems to be a sense in all of Roberson's work that he's having fun--see the third issue of Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes, out this week, if you don't believe it--and iZombie is emblematic of that approach.
Ron Marz and Lee Moder do a book where a badass female samurai takes on a clan of vampires. Do I really need to say more?
One of the great things about Shinku so far (which, admittedly, has only had three issues to grab my attention--but it has done so with a vengeance) is that it doesn't rest on the laurels of that great concept. Being the most badass book in comics is just not enough for them.
We've been getting a little insight into who these characters are and why they do what they do, but for the most part this establishing arc has been Marz giving the readers exactly what they want when they pick up a book about a vampire-hunting samurai chick: Crazy violence, great action beats and a sense of mystery around the title character and the vampire culture that suggests he's got much more in store than the readers can see yet. The cool part, though, is that so far the readers can't see it because Marz and Moder have the gas pedal pressed to the floor on this book, and like most of Shinku's supporting cast the readers are told only what they need to know to move from one sequence to the next before mayhem erupts again.
Let's face it--if someone had told me two years ago that David Lapham and Kyle Baker would be working together on a monthly comic book for Marvel, I would have been intrigued. If that same person had told me the title would be Deadpool, I would have laughed it off as a rumor too preposterous for Rich Johnston's worst day. But that's exactly what happened when two respected and Eisner Award-winning comics creators came together this year for Deadpool Max, an "uncensored" take on Marvel's ultraviolent, often-hilarious Merc With a Mouth made possible by the company's adults-only MAX imprint.
The title is hilarious, beautiful, a ton of fun and really needs no explanation because by the time I'm done with this sentence, the premise will have morphed into something cooler and more bizarre. Just think of it this way: when the guy responsible for Stray Bullets and Young Liars (and the artist behind Why I Hate Saturn) can find himself writing a Christmas special featuring Deadpool, you can be sure that means it's been a good year for all involved.
Nobody was more shocked than me to find myself putting this book on the list. Supergirl is not a character for whom I have a ton of regard for the most part. Like any other character who's just a young, black, female or whatever version of an established character, a big part of me sees Kara Zor-El as mostly a cash grab on the part of the publisher and the only version of Supergirl I've ever truly been invested in--Peter David's--no longer exists. Hell, she didn't even exist BEFORE the New 52 relaunch...but I digress.
Michael Green, Mike Johnson and Mahmud Asrar have crafted a version of Supergirl who is a believable and relatable character, complete with a new and clever way of handling her characterization, which has veered wildly between "bland" and "totally insane" in the past. Suddenly Supergirl is a character you want to read because the book is so good, not just because there's someone somewhere promising you that reading it will pay off down the road. Supergirl is a wildly entertaining comic.
One of the great things about the New 52 is that it gave every title and every character equal footing to start anew. As such, I fully expected Supergirl to take a backseat to thirty or forty other characters or titles I've traditionally liked better--but this creative team has been kicking ass since September, and have made a convert out of me.
With a new Sherlock Holmes movie hitting theaters this month that features Moriarty as its central villain, one has to assume that Daniel Corey's terrific Image Comics title will pick up some eyes. With a little luck it will--like its older sibling The Walking Dead--be able to gain additional long-term readers as a result of the multimedia success, becuase the book deserves it.
The first arc was fun, smart and well-thought-out, with a cliffhanger ending that left anyone even remotely conscious at the end of it chomping at the bit for the second story to begin. With a month off and the collected edition released during it, Moriarty served fans well and kept the creators on schedule.
Arguably owing some of its existence to success stories like Fables and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which used public-domain characters to establish new and exciting worlds of their own with just enough of the familiar to draw in casual readers, Moriarty is a worthy successor to those books and certainly the best of that type of story to come around in a long time. Even with similar concepts clogging up cinemas and prime time, Moriarty was not just the best such comic--but the best such STORY to come along since Fables's unexpectedly delightful start years ago.
Touted by many as objectively the best book in DC's massive September relaunch, Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman quickly established themselves a large fanbase composed not only of critics but of everyday readers who bought the complex and challenging book when the buzz became too overwhelming to ignore. Referred to by Geoff Johns as his new favorite monthly comic, Animal Man has met and exceeded the lofty expectations placed on it by being the first major reinvention of the character since Grant Morrison's landmark run on the title in the 1980s.
In addition to being beautifully rendered and masterfully paced on a visual storytelling level, Animal Man plays with the conventions and mythology of the DC Universe and the established history of the character in a way that seems to say that Lemire loves that stuff, but refuses to be held hostage by it. That way, of course, largely the point of the New 52 and while many creators are still struggling to find their comfort zone in that way, Lemire came in guns a-blazing and has been rewarded by one of the most surprisingly successful titles of the year, going back for reprint after reprint and holding its own in a field of DC titles that includes Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on Justice League and Grant Morrison on Action Comics.
As a longtime superhero reader and not that much of a horror fan, nobody is as surprised as this reviewer to see so many horror titles on the list--but it's apparently a fast-growing part of the industry. Many of the best, most exciting new titles of the year feature vampires, ghosts, zombies and any other manner of oddball supernatural creature--including some great superhero books like Demon Knights and Animal Man.
I, Vampire is great because not only do we get a high-stakes war between a powerful, good vampire and an army of evil ones--but there's the underlying threat to the characters posed by the rest of the DC Universe's heroes. As Fialkov explained to Panel Discussions back in September, these vampires may not just evaporate at the first hint of sunlight as they've been known to in other stories, but it can't be good for them when you've got a guy in blue tights and a red cape running around shooting concentrated sun energy out of his eyes.
And at the heart of all of it is a pair of tortured people--characters who really care about each other in a weird way, but who can't seem to overcome the differences in the way they see the world. It's a distinctly human story, and one that seems to be taking more and more charge of the narrative throughout the early part of 2012. Can't wait.
You know what's really creepy? Terry Moore's new book.
The guy best known for his epic romance-and-espionage book Strangers in Paradise managed to put together a comic that's paced like a Hitchcock film, with the manic mystery of The Ring and the strange supporting cast of Twin Peaks. His gift for characterization has made Rachel an instantly accessible and likable character, even as she's a bit distant and aloof to just about everyone around her.
At the same time, Rachel's hometown of Manson seems her polar opposite; while something awful happened to Rachel and she quickly overcame it, it seems that the same force that allowed her to rise from a shallow grave is slowly swallowing Manson. Violence, chaos and creepy little girls abound and all of this with only three issues on the shelf so far. No indication that it's going to let up, though, and we should see Rachel Rising #4 before the end of the year, bringing some resolution to October's horrifying cliffhanger and helping to make some sense of the madness that is Manson.
Hopefully not too much sense, though; I like it the way it is.
Jeff Lemire strikes again. This comic shocked me in September by being probably my favorite of all 52 relaunch titles and has grown on me more and more with each passing month. Every issue I sit down with higher and higher expectation and every issue they're exceeded by a strange, creepy, violent and funny story that quite simply feels too original to be happening in a mainstream superhero universe.
Like Moriarty, it reinvents classic characters (from both in and outside of comics in Frankenstein's case) and like Animal Man or I, Vampire it uses grotesque and often bizarre imagery to get its point across. Like Deadpool Max, that bizarre and grotesque imagery is sometimes played for laughs and applied with some of the best and most creative visual storytelling this side of Batwoman (another phenomenal book that would have made the list if I had more than ten spots). Like Shinku, it features characters who are working in secrecy, their very existence little more than a rumor, against threats ancient and strange. And like most of the best DC books, it reinvents old characters in exciting and innovative ways (Father Time, anyone?) while never feeling like it's change just for change's sake.
And, of course, like many of the best comics in today's market, it's not selling nearly as many copies as it should be. While certainly a success, this wonderful book should be going home every month, with every reader who enters a comic shop. Buy the damned thing--you'll thank me. It's as near to a perfect comic book as I've seen in years.