Monday, 27 August 2012

Best of the 2012 Caped Comics Brigade

I have been thinking about what comics I have most enjoyed this year - and yes, it is weird to be doing so on the cusp of September. Here's what I am wondering though. Reading superhero comics is so dependent on our understanding of decades of story tropes. For some it is a habitual act - see for example Rob Liefeld's meltdown on Twitter over the weekend when he attacked Scott Snyder for supposedly taking credit for the success of Batman, a title fans will buy regardless. Despite his wrongheaded ravings, the fellow kind of has a point. This is problematic in critical terms, because after all it is difficult to attempt to introduce new concepts into the market when they have to compete with franchises supported by decades of history.

When I sit down to compose a list of books from 2012 I believe to be the best, how many will be superhero comics? How many entries will be chosen because they impressed me on the basis of their own merits, the shock of the new grabbing my attention instead of just another  cape book with a new lick of paint. I read comics because I enjoy the medium, but sometimes I cannot help but feel slightly embarrassed by the manner in which superhero stories have flooded the market. Still I can't deny that I do like the odd bout of superhumans punching each other repetitively.

Below are some individual comics issues, or new series, that have impressed me this past year. Notably there is a mixture of titles here that are not all from DC or Marvel. I think there is something significant in that, as these smaller publishers are producing books that take the notion of the superhero and actually place it in relatively new situations - or at the very least less hindered by dreaded continuity. Honourable mentions should go to David Liss for his excellent period comic Mystery Men and The Shadow by Garth Ennis. I am also looking forward to reviewing The Absolutes, a new comic by my mate Seth Jacob which from a cursory reading falls somewhere between Marvelman and Cla$$war. Go have a gander and decide for yourselves.

Action Comics #9 Grant Morrison & Gene Ha

Action Comics #9 Gene Ha Grant Morrison

Morrison's latest take on the Man of Steel, so soon after All Star Superman, has at times felt like a work bound by contractual obligation, the fag-end of his notion of Superman as a messianic figure for a modern mythology. This issue seems at times inspired by the protracted legal wranglings between DC and the Siegel and Shuster heirs over the property. Certainly lines such as "We can't take it any further on our own. Guys, they'll steal the idea if we don't sell it," and the resulting bastardisation of the superman dream do have the semblance of pointed strikes against the treatment of the character. Commentators were also baited with the image of an 'Obama-esque' Superman, which in turn could be considered a comment on the hoarding of the 'geek' President by dozens of titles, as well as the disappointment experienced by voters towards the resultant administration. I do love the joke of Luthor repeatedly proclaiming he is not a racist for hating this Superman, while the two continue their pointless conflict. This issue is just rife with associations and great fun.

America's Got Powers Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch

America's Got Powers #3 Jonathan Ross Bryan Hitch

I am baffled as to why more people are not reading this. We have Hitch doing his thing with celebrity cameos - David Tennant and Sarah Palin appear - but also capturing the chaos of superhumans on the rampage in a stadium, fighting to the death for the entertainment of spectators. Then there's Ross' plot, an example of having your cake and eating it too, mocking the excesses of superhero comic violence, while at the same time celebrating it on an incredible scale. The callousness of the media circus, with hosts cracking bad jokes as teens pummel each other in the dirt, reminds of that classic of trash cinema Deathrace 2000.

Ah Grace Pander, what a character name.

Captain Marvel #2 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy

Captain Marvel Carol Danvers Kelly Sue DeConnick

I loved this issue, mainly because it discarded the convoluted past of Carol Danvers - assorted incidents of faux-feminism, alcoholism and being sexually assaulted by her own offspring (I am not making that up) - beginning a new chapter in the character's life. DeConnick wisely dispensed with the laboured business of the legacy of 'Captain Marvel' in the first issue, given the half a dozen characters who have held the title to keep the trademark active for the namesake publisher. At the same time a different notion of legacy was introduced, that of Danvers' relationship to wartime airwomen. I have been fascinated with the history of the WRAF for a number of years, so this was a welcome development. We then have Carol launched into her own adventure, meeting an all-female version of the Howling Commandos after she is transported backwards in time. That final panel comes with the line "Let's rewrite some history, shall we?" and this book feels like a long overdue corrective to a long period of neglect. Well worth your time.

Harbinger by Joshua Dysart and Khari Evans

Harbinger #1 Valiant Comics

The Summer of Valiant is well and truly up and away. While Archer and Armstrong has its charms - although I think Van Lente is in danger of laying it on a bit thick with the nudge-nudge wink-wink satire - and Bloodshot is an intelligent iteration of the 'brainwashed mercenary' comics trope, I keep coming back to Harbinger for its flawed characters, shocking moments and a gripping sense of powerful adolescents lashing out at the world around them. The X-Men could never be written like this.

Hero Worship by Zak Penn, Scott Murphy and Michael Dipascale

Hero Worship Avatar

Jaysis - do my eyes deceive me or is this an Avatar book without zombies and/or Cthulhu beasties? In fact, could this well be the most interesting take on comic book fanboys for many a year? It's possible. Penn and Murphy's story has a devoted superhero fan Adam discover he has somehow become empowered with the same ability as superhuman celeb Zenith, whose heroism is obsessively recorded by smartphone-wielding rubberneckers and a dedicated media team. The second issue is out on the shelves this week, and features a chilling scene with marketers discussing how best to deal with Adam's ethnicity in the public arena - can an Asian superhero be as lucrative for them as Zenith? This is very promising stuff and possibly my favourite debut of the year.

The Hypernaturals by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Brad Walker

The Hypernaturals Boom! Studios

DnA get cosmic. We know this. Here they take their various digressions into science fiction and superhero comics, shove it all in a blender and flick the on switch. Like Hero Worship and America's Got Powers we also see the theme of superhumans as celebrities here. I think a pattern is emerging in these reviews. But these battles are not staged, these defenders of humanity are fighting genuine threats - and in the first issue encounter an old foe who brutally tears the team apart. With only retired and disgraced members struck off the books left to take a stand, as well as two green recruits rush through training, the threat feels real, the characters' desperation is compelling and the ideas pop off the page. DnA have done it again.

The Ray by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Jamal Igle

The Ray DC Comics Jamal Igle Justin Gray Jimmy Palmiotti

This wee miniseries came courtesy of the *other* great comic book partnership, Gray and Palmiotti, whose book All Star Western is one of the highlights of the current crop of DC titles. The Ray by contrast with the grim violence of Jonah Hex, featured an upbeat and charming protagonist, dating problems, imaginative displays of power, and a fantastic villain who appears to owe a bit to Lamberto Bava's Demons. Just great fun and that final hook for a Freedom Fighters revamp has left me hanging on for a few months now - put me out of my misery DC!

Supurbia by Grace Randolph and Russell Dauterman

Supurbia Grace Randolph Russell Dauterman

Thankfully a new series of Supurbia has been confirmed for the fall, with Randolph's musings on what it is like to be a spouse or loved one of a superhero left behind while the person you care about heads out to fight monsters. This is a book with heart that also does a fine job of throwing curveballs at the reader. Betrayal, tragedy and shock revelations dog these characters, in a story that has enough wit to show how the battles at home can be as dangerous as those in the skies. Great stuff.

Ultimate Comics X-Men by Brian Wood, Paco Medina, Reilly Brown

Ultimate Comics X-Men Brian Wood

The Massive by Wood is a fascinating book, one that is challenging readers with its vision of a global environmental disaster and ideological investigation of violence in a world were civilization has collapsed. This book does not hit the same heights - but by god, Wood has turned the world of the X-Men on its head. Not for shameless shock value or chasing the dragon of the Age of Apocalypse. Instead this storyline takes at face value the notion of mutant rights and an emerging political underground, then sees where it leads. That this should take place during the perennial series story trope of a 'road trip' shows just how cannily the writer has understood the trappings of this franchise. I have not been this interested in an X-Men book in years. 

Uncanny X-Men #14 by Kieron Gillen and Dustin Weaver

Uncanny X-Men Kieron Gillen Dustin Weaver

Much as I admired Kieron Gillen's attempts to invest genuine realpolitik in the lead-up to this year's Marvel Comic conflagration - Avengers vs X-Men - the arrival of Greg Land on the title sent me packing. I cannot stand the man's work, it just gives me the heebee jeebies. But his collaboration with Weaver here is stunning, giving full-vent to Gillen's conception of a unified Sinister, his Victorian dandy look taken to the nth degree, presenting us with an underworld kingdom of his own, peopled entirely by his own clones. However, in a note of sadism so typical of the villain, some of the clones feel a stirring of rebellion against the 'system' and yearn to fight back. The book looks simply stunning - it may well be one of the most beautiful issues of the year - but what's more - I think Gillen just went and summarized the entirety of The Prisoner in one comic book!

There ya go folks, those are my superhero comic picks for 2012. Let me know what you think here, on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. I'm glad someone else saw the validity of Liefeld's point. Too bad his methods were so flawed in expressing it. Good list! You continue to produce excellent work over here on The Momus Report.

  2. Cheers Robb. God, agreeing with Liefeld, what's next - fifteen pouches on a pant-leg!?


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