There are, let it be said, a great many delightful, profound and clever comics on the market today. And then, there are a whole separate class. Once in a while I just read a comic and when I put it down, I say, "How does this book get made?" How do certain comics sneak through the cracks and manage to be just brilliant? There seem to be so many things standing in the way--they need to appeal to a group big enough to keep it in print; if it's a Big Two book, they need to conform at least somewhat to the publisher's voice and the needs of the larger universe. And, of course, there's the issue of consistency. Even the best comics can have a rough patch. So, yes. This is going to be a series of just ridiculously enthusiastic statements. As a reviewer, I've written quite a few thoughtful, critical things that dissect even my favorite books. I'm using this holiday as an excuse to be unconditionally enthusiastic about books that I feel deserve double or more the number of readers they have. What are the books that I pick up every month and just say, "Man, I'm lucky this book exists?" Well, here in the form of a Thanksgiving love letter to some of my favorite comics, is a list:
Hawkeye David Aja and Matt Fraction have managed to do the impossible: Hawkeye is the best book at Marvel. Yeah, Hawkeye. That dude who did absolutely nothing interesting in Marvel's The Avengers. The guy Joss Whedon couldn't even find a way to make interesting is the most interesting character at Marvel. Possibly the most interesting superhero character in print, month in and month out. Enough people have heaped enough praise on this book that I probably don't need to go too far with it, but an indication of how lovable this book is comes from the fact that when I visited Comic Con--and there were elaborate costumes and expensive ones and sexy ones--my favorite cosplay of the weekend was a lovely young woman in a simple Hawkeye costume, who had attached to herself a thought balloon saying "Okay. This looks bad."
Savage Dragon Why do we talk to Erik Larsen about Savage Dragon every month when the new issue hits? Because ever since issue #150--which came out nearly four years ago now--there isn't a more consistently entertaining superhero comic on the market--period. Over the course of the last five years or so, Larsen has transformed a good, solid book into something that's an absolute crime to miss. Savage Dragon is so good that when I get my advance reader copy, I usually drop everything I'm doing and read it immediately, sacrificing not only whatever is going on at the time but also something of the reading experience since that first version comes to me as a batch of jpegs that represent individually-scanned pages. Larsen has not only crafted a story that's been wild, creative and hugely engaging, but he's managed to continue experimenting long past the point where most guys would have. Playing with the format, the coloring, even releasing a "digest-sized" issue just for kicks and giggles, Larsen challenges himself as a writer and artist, and the audience reaps the rewards. Rachel Rising
It's my opinion that Terry Moore is one of the most talented cartoonists on the planet. Certainly twenty years of doing ongoing, monthly-ish comic books that he has to write, draw, letter and edit all by himself is impressive--even if I hadn't long ago decided that Strangers in Paradise is arguably the best single achievement in American comics. Rachel Rising ups the ante, as he tries to push himself and his readers farther, hoping to make you jump while reading a comic made up of static images. And, yes, it's got just enough of the "Terryverse" to give fans who want obscure connections to his other book something to cling to--you know, for those who have years of DC and Marvel experience informing their reading decisions. Witchblade
This one hasn't been quite the same since Ron Marz left, and his return--well, it was a beautiful book. Not just well-written, which with Marz--and especially Marz on a character he clearly loves this much--is a given...but the new style of the illustration work is gorgeous. Last month's issue was the most improvement we've seen, issue-to-issue, from any major-publisher title this year. I'm looking forward to what Ron has planned for the future and I consider myself quite lucky to be in on the ground floor, as opposed to last time, when I had to spend a bunch of money catching up with the title.
All-Star Western In the same vein as Savage Dragon, there aren't many books--especially at the Big Two--that have had more consistent quality and a stronger creative vision on the part of the writers than Jonah Hex/All-Star Western over the course of the last several years. And now, just in case it wasn't enough to be outrageously clever with your beautifully-rendered Western, they've incorporated time travel and comedy elements that seem so perfectly at home it's a wonder the book never had them before. All-Star Western isn't strictly speaking a superhero comic, but if it were, it would be DC's best monthly superhero comic. Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Moritat will have to just settle for being arguably the best, most exciting book DC or Marvel has on the market right now, full stop. The X-Files: Season Ten
Joe Harris's passion for the characters and the project comes through on every page of this book, with crackling dialogue and sharp characterizations backing up terrific art from Michael Walsh. The pair have managed to do something that so many have tried and failed to do in the twenty years or so since The X-Files first debuted: they've created a tie-in media that stands up to, and fits nicely with, the original TV series. It's the kind of comic that X-Files fans have wished for, longed for, for years--and the fact that it's enjoyed almost universal praise from fans and reviewers is really no surprise. Edison Rex
Dennis Culver's clean, almost traditional-looking art belies just how crazy this book can be--in a good way. Monkeybrain Comics publisher Chris Roberson, who writes it, would be my personal pick if I had to choose a "Most Likely to Be Alan Moore Someday" in the comics-professionals high school yearbook. Why? He's a tremendously talented writer with a flair for the absurd, a passion for incorporating the tropes of non-comics fiction into comics, a deep sense of what makes superheroes special and particular characters tick. He's also managed to burn his bridges with his former employers at DC so thoroughly that seeing him start his own comic book publisher, and then immediately launch a title that's been fairly described by more than one critic as the best Superman book the market has seen in years, was actually not at all surprising. The subgenre of superhero self-examination, epitomized by Watchmen but also encompassing books like J.M. DeMatteis's The Life and Times of Savior 28, is one of my favorites, and Edison Rex manages to play in that world with the kind of gleeful abandon that Grant Morrison managed during his best Animal Man work, and which is a truly rare pleasure to read. Amelia Cole
Also from Roberson's Monkeybrain Comics imprint, Amelia Cole puts D.J. Kirkbride and Adam P. Knave together on one of the coolest, craziest takes on a magical superhero you'll ever read. As somebody who prefers science fiction to fantasy and superheroes to magic, the only thing about this title that jumped to me at first was the fact that artist Nick Brokenshire created a gorgeous cover to the first issue that just begged to be read. The color palette and solicitation text gave it the general vibe of a kind of poor man's Harry Potter, but that art was just too good to pass up, and thank Goodness. The book hit the ground running and by the third or fourth page, I was hooked and all of my previous concerns that they were somehow creating a derivative work melted away. Amelia is one of the most compelling female leads in all of comics, and her supporting cast--being built up slowly but surely--is stronger than anything you'll get in the crossover-burdened Big Two. And as an aside, check out their new book Never Ending at Dark Horse. If you read it and Amelia Cole in a single sitting and don't see these guys are f---ing all-stars, you're blind.
Archer & Armstrong If Archer's parents had their way, there would be a law against having this much fun. Fred Van Lente has manged to capture the general tone of Archer & Armstrong's original series without mimicking or ripping off what made it special. There's enough difference here--and enough of a message, on Van Lente's part--that nobody would confuse it for the original but by the same token nobody would deny that he's reproduced the core of the characters perfectly. Blending historical fiction, comedy, superheroics and high adventure, Archer & Armstrong is the best buddy book in comics--a title for which, you'll see below, there's some stiff competition right there at Valiant. Quantum & Woody It cannot be said clearly enough: James Asmus is a miracle worker.
Nobody ever wanted to see Quantum & Woody written by anybody besides Priest--and many readers only got more entrenched when, shortly before Quantum & Woody #1 hit the stands, there was some question as to the exact nature of Priest and M.D. Bright's discussions with the publisher. Artist Kevin Maguire publicly declared that he would refuse work on the title unless he found that Priest and Bright were alright with it. So this is a guy who was up against a a 2-strike count by the time he got up to bat, and yet he's managed to make what is widely recognized as one of the most dynamic and entertaining books in comics.