2007 was a good year for science fiction, fantasy and horror in comics. Zombies continued to enjoy a banner year (and seriously, what's up with that?), sasquatch came out to play in Proof, Sasquatch, and Perhapanauts, and there was even some space opera here and there. And yet, the year was so full of interesting things that only one zombie work, and none of the sasquatch wound up being the most interesting things I saw this year. Only one Marvel title made it onto the list, and no DC universe titles, although All-Star Superman came very close, as did DC/Vertigo's Fables.
Herewith, my criteria for what made it into this year's list. Simple, short, and sweet:
- Do I remember the book in question? Fondly, or as though it were a four-color root canal? Edifying or not, did I like reading it?
- Was it good?
As I said, simple, short, and sweet. There's a tiny bit of a fudge factor involved; a few titles were published in late 2006, but only made it into the local comic store in early 2007. Note also that my tastes are somewhat . . . odd.
And so: alphabetically by title, forward into the fray! The 20 (or possibly 21) best, most interesting, most fun titles I read this year.
Alan Moore's Hypothetical Lizard (Alan Moore and Antony Johnston, writers/Lorenzo Lorente and Sebastian Fiumara, art; Avatar Press, publisher)
Hypothetical Lizard is a story told essentially in two parts. In the first part, we meet Som-Som, a young girl sold by her mother into a house of prostitution. Even as a child, she is so breathtakingly lovely that wizards and politicians will pay a fortune to sleep with her; however, as those people have important secrets to hold and may talk out of school, it's important that anyone they're with be unable to relay those secrets. Therefore, Som-Som's brain is magically divided, left and right hemispheres separated, and a solid porcelain mask put on one half of her head to retrain her vision and hearing. She'll be unable to talk coherently about what she sees, so their secrets will be safe. Strangely, we find out very little about her life as a prostitute after that. Instead, the story shifts to Som-Som observing Rawra Chin, who starts in the house as an attractive boy of fourteen, and becomes a rhapsodically beautiful transvestite of quite some renown. She comes to Som-Som to talk, knowing that Som-Som cannot reveal her confidences. Rawra Chin becomes romantically involved with Foral Yatt, an actor cum gigolo working in the house, and through Som-Som's eyes, we witness their relationship. Antony Johnston adapted Alan Moore's short story, and the black-and-white artwork by Lorente and Fiumara is stunningly gorgeous. Distinctly a mature-readers-only title, Hypothetical Lizard has quite a lot of sex, nudity, violence, and tattoos. The setting helps convey the horror of what people are capable of doing to one another, no matter where they are.
Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril (Joshua Dysart/Sal Velluto; Penny Farthing Press)
Combine The Rocketeer with Raiders of the Lost Ark, early Kyle Raynor-era Green Lantern (sort of), and maybe Milestone's Static Shock (again, sort of), and you'll have something of the flavor of this story. Taking place back in the late 30s and early 40s, it recounts the adventures of Joshua Jones, a young black man who is the personal assistant for the studio producer, and also crew on the set of the movie serial "Captain Gravity." Joshua has an almost-romance with his best friend Chase Dubois, an up-and-coming young starlet. Unfortunately, Chase is white, so "almost-romance" is as close as they can let themselves get in that day and age. Through a series of harrowing incidents in the first volume, Captain Gravity, Joshua winds up with the sorts of superpowers that the fictional "Captain Gravity" is supposed to have. The frame of this second volume is from many years after the first; Joshua seems to have retired Captain Gravity from public life, and the story is told entirely in flashback. In the flashback story, Joshua winds up fighting the Nazis again, a consequence of what happened in the first volume. The main story starts with Joshua being vaguely stalkery, following Chase around Cairo after wrapping one of the Captain Gravity serials. Chase gets kidnapped almost immediately—it turns out that she's doing something entirely unexpected—and Joshua as Captain Gravity runs all over Egypt trying to find her. Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril pretty much stands alone, without having tons of "last time, in Captain Gravity" stuff. (In fact, I read the second volume first, and then went back to read the first volume only because I wanted to, and not because I was at all confused.) This sequel is much darker than the first volume, as Joshua experiences the realities of war up close and personal. The artwork has an interesting slightly sepia cast that works with the somewhat old-fashioned line art to make it look like a 40s comic serial. The only real downside to the second volume is that Chase is a very distressed damsel indeed, but even with that, it's still a very good story.
Casanova (Matt Fraction, writer/Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, art; Image, publisher)
One part 60s spy story, one part 60s science fiction story, which all somehow works to produce an interesting and entertaining story for the Aughts, or whatever this decade is called. Think of it as a trippier take on Our Man Flint, rather than on James Bond. The first story arc, "Luxuria" (Lust), pulled Casanova out of his proper time and place and made him deal with his family—some of whom were actually dead in his own universe. The issues in the "Luxuria" arc are mostly self-contained; the throughline gets somewhat more pronounced as the story continues. In the second arc, "Gula" (gluttony), the throughline becomes "When is Casanova Quinn?"; it seems that people have noticed that he's not quite when he's supposed to be. Carrying on a story entirely without the title character is a remarkably audacious thing to do, but so far, it seems to be working. It's truly loopy; the characters occasionally have asides to the reader to fill them in on important information, one character periodically grows four extra arms when she gets agitated, there's the odd ascended god or multiply merged monks wandering around, sentient robot/computer thingies, and so on. The artwork, unusually, uses relatively few colors; certain colors dominate depending on who's the focus or what's going on, but in many ways, Casanova looks like a black and white book. Using the Image Slimline format first used by Warren Ellis' and Ben Templesmith's Fell makes it inexpensive, relatively speaking, and there's loads of backmatter in the individual issues that doesn't get reproduced for the collections. Despite being a bit of work—it's not always clear what's going on without a re-reading or two—Casanova hits that same note that a lot of 60s spy movies hit, weird mod fun adventure with occasional near-incest moments.
Courtney Crumrin and the Fire Thief's Tale
(Ted Naifeh; Oni Press, preview online)
Fourth in the Courtney Crumrin series, in this book, we follow Courtney and her great-uncle Aloysius to Romania. Werewolves and the Romany roam around the town they visit, and the villagers aren't pleased about either one, since the Romany are the werewolves. At the same time, Magda, the daughter of the man Courtney and her uncle are visiting is betrothed to a town elder, and is entirely displeased about it, since she's in love with Jan, one of the Rom. In fact, her betrothed, not knowing about their relationship, is nonetheless trying to kill her lover the Rom werewolf, just because he doesn't like werewolves. Magda lacks the courage to simply run away with Jan, especially knowing how difficult his life is going to be. She's so afraid that she's willing to watch Petru, her affianced, murder Jan without lifting a finger to stop it. Courtney can't tolerate this sort of injustice; for all her abilities and all that she's seen and done, she has a very firm view of what the right results are, and a somewhat flexible view of how to get to those results. We watch Courtney thrown into a situation where she's completely out of her depth, and there's very little she can do. It doesn't stop her trying, against everyone's advice. She quickly discovers that her witch powers are largely useless against both the villagers and the Rom, who are all counterspelled against witchcraft. The situation rapidly falls to pieces when the villagers decide not only to pursue Jan but also to massacre his entire family, and Courtney sets out to try to prevent it. Naifeh's writing and art work together to tell a bittersweet, somewhat elegaic story.
Dresden Codak (Aaron Diaz; online at http://www.dresdencodak.com)
Dresden Codak is easily one of the weirder strips I've seen. Writer/artist Aaron Diaz, on his About page, says "Dresden Codak is an illustrated celebration of science, death and human folly," and honestly, that seems pretty accurate. It's had three distinct phases—phase one looked like it was written by science geeks on really good drugs and channelling Perry Bible Fellowship; in phase two, it seemed to have experienced a hostile takeover by literature and philosophy geeks (the drugs remained of excellent quality); in phase three, the science geeks revolted, capturing the literature and philosophy geeks and forcing them to work, maintaining the quality of the drugs, and then suddenly deciding to suddenly tell a very strange story, just because they could. All of those phases were written and illustrated by Diaz himself, and somehow, the very strange story works. The current storyline, "Hob" involves invasions of Earth by various beings and/or robots; it's actually the first real continuing storyline in the series (philosophers and inventors continue to appear unexpectedly, plus at one point, things blow up real good, and then there are robot-gorilla-dinosaur-thingies). The science gets amazingly detailed in places, so you sort of know how and why things work. Kimiko, the main character, may or may not be learning that with great powers come great responsibilities, and not at all enjoying the lesson. I love it for the weird science and philosophy, and strange storylines that may or may not involve time travel. Diaz' artwork gets just as amazingly detailed as the science, with very different sorts of layouts that are nonetheless fairly easy to follow. The strip gets one massive update on a weekly/biweekly basis.
Earthlight vols 1 and 2 (Stuart Moore/Chrostopher Schons; Tokyopop)
The world of Earthlight is a mess, with resources completely exhausted; a colony on the moon exists to run the satellites that take solar energy from the sun, convert it to microwaves, and beam it back to the earth, which has an insatiable demand for power that the planet can no longer fulfill. China, Russia, and Britain are in particularly terrible shape, even for this earth. An accident results in three deaths and a change in moon colony administration. The story proper picks up with Damon Cole, the new kid brought somewhat unwillingly to the colony by his American black father, the new colony administrator, and his British mother, the new schoolteacher (and given the world they describe, you wonder how on earth they ever managed to meet, let alone reproduce). The other kids in the colony have their own issues: Lise can't stand to be touched for some rather appalling reasons, and Xan thinks he's entitled to top dog status, and beats up anyone else, just for the hell of it. Moore introduces the characters and situation in the first volume, then ratchets it up the tension considerably in volume 2. Schons' manga-style art works, without pushing to the extremes of the form. Volume 2 addresses the cliffhanger from the first volume, forcing Damon and Nikolai to display a great deal of initiative and courage. Most people will enjoy Earthlight, especially if they're into science fiction at all. Rated for teens, which seems reasonable; there's one bad word—and only one—but also a fair amount of violence and black and white blood, and some death as well.
vols 1-2 (Adam Warren; Dark Horse)
Empowered, the superhero parody manga-ish comic, follows the titular (and badly named) superheroine as she tries to make her chosen vocation work. Volume 1 introduces our heroine, her eventual boyfriend Thugboy, and her eventual best friend Ninjette, and her captive in a belt, the Demonlord, all of whom start out as villains. We also meet her team of fellow heroes, the Superhomeys, and a more distasteful and silly lot of heroes you never did see. Empowered's costume, a form fitting membrane, gives her all sorts of incredible powers, with but two significant drawbacks. First, even the smallest tear completely short circuits her powers; given the nature of super battles, her costume gets torn with predictable frequency. Once she's powerless she also gets tied up a lot, to the point where she's a complete joke among both superheroes and supervillains. Second, it turns out that the least hair shows through the costume in strange ways, so it requires her to depilate Down There. (This is, believe it or not, a plot point in both volumes.) The character started out as a porn commission by Warren, and somehow evolved into a rather pointed parody of superheroine tropes. In the second volume, the story begins to develop, and we find out more about Empowered's background and why she became a superhero. We also find out more about Thugboy and Ninjette, setting up stories for future volumes. Warren's art and story work well together, conveying the sometimes-frenetic nature of the story and action. For adults who have read a certain amount of superhero comics and gotten intrigued/annoyed by certain peculiar aspects, Empowered is a hell of a lot of fun.
Fallen Angel (Peter David/J.K. Woodward; IDW)
Bete Noire is the city that shapes the world; writer Peter David once described it as "Casablanca in the Twilight Zone". Liandra—Lee to most—is an actual fallen angel, who serves as Bete Noire's court of last resort, the balancing agent when one side or another gets too strong. Her son Jude, a former priest, by former magistrate Juris Doctor has come back to be magistrate of the city, despite Lee's best efforts to keep him away. She may also be trying to help a very weary God commit suicide, as His price for helping her get her son out of this mess. (They agreed to the deal over a beer; apparently God enjoys a good pint. Who knew?) In the meantime, the city is working its wiles on Jude's mind, breaking him down slowly but surely. Conspiracies and counterconspiracies abound; who are the Hierarchy and what do they really want? Furor's, a bar run by Dolf, is the Angel's favorite watering hole, and where she seems to meet her clients most times. Dolf himself may or may not be a much older Adolph Hitler. The Serpent (yes, THE Serpent) lives in the city as a human, occasionally luring the odd innocent into an alley and eating them. David's story is incredibly detailed, dark and evokes character and setting beautifully—though in this case, the setting is a character in itself. Woodward's art is ravishingly gorgeous. As long as you can take the religious cynicism—Bete Noire is actively hostile to religion, for various reasons—Fallen Angel makes a fascinating and exciting story.
The Immortal Iron Fist, vol 1: The Last Iron Fist Story (Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction/David Aja et al; Marvel)
That's right, an actual Marvel Universe story on this list.
The Immortal Iron Fist follows Danny Rand, millionaire, who owns a mansion and a yacht (sorry, couldn't resist) and a very large sky scraper in New York. He's also been trained to be a kung-fu master by the monks of Kun'Lun. In the normal way of things, there's almost always an Iron Fist. One dies, and another is immediately chosen to take his place. However, it turns out that the last Iron Fist didn't quite die before Danny was called to take over the role. This gives the forces of evil a way in, of sorts, and they set about trying to kill both of the living Iron Fists, despite the fact that Danny's predecessor mostly just wants to be left alone. (It's very oddly Buffyesque, in fact.) For a wonder, you don't have to be steeped in Marvel continuity to read this title; it helps to know the bare bones of what Civil War was all about, but you don't need more than that, and you can actually get away without knowing even that much. Brubaker and Fraction make Danny interesting and realistic—for certain values of "real," of course—and David Aja's art is simply spectacular. The volume also contains a small backup story of the time when Danny took over Daredevil's costume, in order to keep Daredevil's secret identity from being exposed. Overall, a very good and enjoyable fight comic.
King City vol 1 (Brandon Graham; Tokyopop)
King City takes place in a large city of the future. Science has advanced, if that's quite the right word, so that many improbable things are possible. Joe, the main character, is a master thief, lock-pick, and cat-master, trained in the use of his genetically enhanced cat and offering up any number of cat-based puns; with an injection of a specialized shot of "cat juice," the cat winds up being capable of doing almost anything you can imagine (the story had me at "copy cat"). Joe left King City some time ago, and has only reluctantly returned to do a job that should get him a lot of cash . . . and maybe he can also avoid/deal with his ex-girlfriend Anna, once he figures out what he wants to do in that regard. Joe, his best friend Pete and Joe's sort-of-ex-girlfriend wind up enmeshed in some grand conspiracy involving several gangs in King City's criminal underworld: ninjas, goons (who are not quite human), zombies, a drug called chalk that comes from a thoroughly appalling source, and a sort of mer-squid-cat-woman that Pete is forced to essentially hold hostage for one of the big bad guys. Joe's mostly ex-girlfriend Anna appears at just the wrong time, along with her chalk-addicted current boyfriend Max, who got addicted during his tour in the zombie wars. It's a technopunk story with hints of an interesting romance gone wrong that may yet have a chance to go right, depending on what exactly your definition of "right" is. Graham's art works well to convey the utter loopiness of his writing, and yet the story somehow hangs together and you want to see what happens next.
Kukuburi (Ramon Perez; online at http://kukuburi.com or http://kukuburi.transmission-x.com)
It's an average day for Nadia. She's going about her business, getting her coffee, being late to work, running her delivery route on her moped . . . and then she goes through an ordinary gate and ends up in another universe. She quickly becomes something of an avatar in the universe, although for some reason, they never explain what's going on to her. Nadia winds up playing a thoroughly unexpected game against Death (who has a totally bitchin' pair of red sunglasses and a snappy dress sense for a skeleton), in which she gets a somewhat brutal introduction to the rules of the universe. Mr. Bojangles, Nadia's pet iguana, seems to know what's going on, but he hasn't yet explained it to her, or to us, and it's becoming fast apparent that Nadia needs to know all the rules. Ramon Perez' art is really beautiful, lush and stylized, conveying the beauty and strangeness of this universe that Nadia finds herself in. For all that it's modern high fantasy, Perez' script retains a lot of the humor that you see in his other strip, Butternut Squash (if not the style of BNS' humor, which would be woefully inappropriate). Surprisingly enough, so far, it's an all ages strip, easy for anyone to enjoy.
Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Eiji Outsuka/Housui Yamazaki; Dark Horse)
We follow the adventures of a group of students from a Buddhist college, who wind up banding together through circumstance, a peculiar set of abilities, and the inability to find any other paying work. Consider it a really gruesome version of the Scooby-Doo mysteries (including a van, even); the kids investigate, determine what they need to know and what they need to do, and then ghastly hijinks ensue. Kuro Karatsu speaks with the dead, and is god-or-ghostridden besides; Numata dowses for bodies using his bone pendant/ring; Makina is a master embalmer; Yata apparently has formed a link with an alien in outer space who has some knowledge that the humans lack, and can only cope by having the alien speak through a handpuppet he wears all the time; Ao Sasaki is the sensible leader—well, as sensible as she can be, given this group—and internet/computer master geek. The first volume contains a series of short stories; the second contains one long story, focusing on Sasaki and her family history; then the volumes shift back to having somewhat connected short stories. The characters are well written and defined, and the stories themselves very interesting. Oddly, none of the characters aside from Sasaki have been given much background detail; the title was briefly cancelled after volume 2, and the author said that he'd wanted to do that background and show why each of them has the abilities they have, and that the cancellation prevented that. The artwork is very clear and clean, making the gory horrific bits stand out for their more intense shading and detail. The characters, both regular and minor, are easy to distinguish and consistently handled. There are also occasional cityscape or landscape scenes where the attention to detail is absolutely stunning and must have taken ages to draw. The naked girls in volumes 1 and 4—the series earns its "mature readers" wrapper—are a bit disquieting, both for the number and the attention to certain details, and it's very disquieting to see Makina naked when she gets captured and stripped by one of the bad guys, especially since she's been generally drawn to look very young. In a way, it seems odd to object; both Japanese and Western film, for example, have a long tradition of putting naked girls into horror for no apparent reason. However, the hand-drawn artwork means that you become oddly aware that the artist spent a certain amount of time detailing a corpse's genitals. That said, in two scenes, the naked bodies (one is actually alive, for certain definitions of "alive") are meant to disturb precisely because of their nakedness; that very attention to detail lets the story conveys without words exactly what's been happening to these two women's bodies, and the sheer degree of wrongness involved. THAT said, another story makes it clear that naked women are the attraction; a full-frontal nude male corpse is handled with much less attention to detail than the naked women shown in exactly the same situation and position somewhat earlier in the same story. Even so, the stories are generally very good, and adults and older (much older) teens who like horror and/or detective stories will appreciate Kurosagi.
Last Call vol 1 (Vasilis Lolos; Oni Press, preview online)
Sam and Alec are the sorts of teenagers you see in any town. Into hard rock, Star Trek TNG fans, aimless, not a lot to do. One night, they decide to go joyriding in Alec's mother's station wagon. They run out of gas in a parking lot, listening to the radio. Suddenly, they hear the sounds of a train bearing down on them, despite being nowhere near any railroad tracks. A flash of light, the sound of bells . . . and suddenly, they're sitting in a railroad carriage, station wagon nowhere to be seen. That's only the first of many surprises for them in this first volume. It gradually becomes apparent that they're no longer in this world. Sam says at one point, "This isn't a TV show! We're in HELL!
Our parents were right! Listening to metal will doom our souls, and now we're paying the price!" It turns out that it's not quite hell; it's a ghost train, travelling between dimensions and worlds. Alec quickly gets thrown off the train for not having a ticket—and by "thrown off," I mean "thrown out the window of a moving train." Alec was clearly the leader, so his absence forces Sam to figure things out on his own. Because everyone seems to be a demon, or at least demonic, it's impossible to tell by appearance who the (relatively) good and bad guys are, and the inability to tell makes Sam's life very difficult. Lolos' story and highly stylized art carry you along, showing you this world without explaining very much, yet still making you care what happens with these characters. As just the first book in this series, this volume serves primarily as an introduction to the characters and situation; aside from putting the boys in this world, not a lot happens until the end, when the action ratchets up a notch or two, and thoroughly unexpected things happen.
Madame Mirage (Paul Dini/Kenneth Roccafort; Top Cow)
You have no idea how surprised I am to have this title appear on a list of the year's best, or how long I had to argue with myself about whether or not it belonged here. (Literally, up to the very last minute.) It really and truly wound up being surprisingly good. Issues 1 and 2 were interesting enough to keep me paying attention, but issues 3 and 4 kicked it onto this list. Essentially, it takes the premise of Marvel's Civil War—what if people with superpowers or super enhancements were essentially outlawed?—and it takes it to the logical next step; superheroes, people trying to do the right thing would essentially be forced to stop doing so, and supervillains would have a field day. Eventually law enforcement would figure out how to take down a lot of the supervillains, so they'd go underground and be able to operate essentially unfettered, until something or someone extralegal figured out how to take them all down. Enter Madame Mirage, that special someone or something. The sisters Angela and Harper Temple create Madame Mirage to take down the supervillains; Angela is the public face and body of Madame, while Harper is the behind-the-scenes brains. In issue 2, Mirage takes the fight to the bad guys' homes. When her plan starts rolling, the highlight is a kind of a cool not-exactly-a-fight sequence. Issue 3 contains Mirage's origin story, and it's exactly as shocking as they tell you it's going to be, for once. Issue 4 contains a major plot twist that is, again, thoroughly shocking and surprising, once the real plan is revealed. Roccafort's art is highly stylized, and Mirage's exaggerated form is an actual plot point, it turns out. Dini's characterization of the sisters Temple is very strong—surprisingly so, given what the plot makes of Angela in particular; that said, the characterization of the villains could be a bit stronger. They're all very cardboard at the moment, but then, they do keep dying, and with the exception of Dude and one other, they mostly haven't hung around long enough to need characterization. Technically, I suppose it's a superhero story—although, given that Mirage has killed an impressive number of bad guys so far, it might more reasonably be called an antihero story. Now that we know who the players really are, and what their motivations are, the story's gotten really interesting, and it's going to be fascinating to see what happens next.
Monster Attack Network (Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman/Nima Sorat; AIT Planet Lar)
Monster Attack Network combines a romantic comedy with every Japanese monster movie ever made. It takes place on the lovely tropical isle of Lapuatu. The island experiences regular attacks by giant creatures from the sea and elsewhere—worms, dinosaurs, flying things, etc. You know, the usual. Because it is the usual, Lapuatu created the Monster Attack Network as a rapid response team; thanks to the Monster Attack Network (or M.A.N.), the rampaging is limited, fewer tops of buildings get done in, and the monster eventually gets led back to the sea, or the hole in the ground, or wherever. (Killing monsters is discouraged. After all, who wants to deal with giant monster corpses?) Nathaniel Klinger is lead field agent and operations manager for the Monster Action Network, tutoring Lana Barnes, newbie agent who may have a Deep Dark Secret. The romantic comedy aspect is handled with remarkable dispatch, with inappropriate sex occuring maybe a third of the way into the book, "[getting] it out of the way." Zeke is Nate's best friend and fellow agent. . . and black. And gay. And he lives through the end of the book! There is, of course, a villain (aside from the monsters). There's angst! There's drama! There's giant flying microbats and giant robots! And here and there, we see snippets from the MAN Manual, with cheery little anime-ish figures saying things like, "From time to time, you will need equipment not available at MAN headquarters. Every business' charter includes a clause stating that they must, when presented with due cause by a MAN operative, place any requested equipment/personnel at said operative's disposal. They won't want to do this. But it's the cost of doing business on Lapuatu. Tell them to suck it up." (This is followed immediately by a scene in which Zeke commandeers a van and does indeed tell someone to "suck it up.") Bernardin and Freeman's writing is pretty damn good. There's a weird moment at the very end, which is wonderfully inspirational, and hits exactly the right emotional note . . . and ten seconds after you close the book, you realize that it's absolutely and completely wrong, but in a weirdly right way. Given what we've been told about the characters involved, it simply shouldn't happen; certainly not without a lot of angst and agita, at least some of which we should have seen or heard about. But . . . it feels like the right ending, so you kind of don't mind. Sorat's artwork is very expressive, and does a great job of showing character and feeling. Unfortunately, it isn't the best for showing clear action scenes. Nonetheless, altogether, it's a really wonderful book, and everyone should read it. Right now! (I may be a bit prejudiced. I really really like this book. Possibly my pick of the year, if I were doing such a thing, which I'm not.)
Nextwave, Agents of H.A.T.E: vol 1, This Is What They Want; vol. 2, I Kick Your Face (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen; Marvel)
More fun than you thought anyone could contain in a superhero title; you wouldn't think that a story pretty much expressly designed to be enjoyed with the minimum available brain power would be that good, and yet it was. Using some B- and C-list Marvel characters (although I hadn't thought Monica Rambeau was particluarly B-list until she showed up here), Ellis and Immonen produce a title that isn't concerned with any outside continuity, a title you don't have to be a Marvel wonk to understand. (Which is good, because I read all of two Marvel titles outside this.) It's basically fight comix for the sake of fight comix. The last issue contained one of the most perfect moments ever: one where the bad guy has just realized what Monica has told him is going to happen to him, and all he can say is "Oh. . ." while she looses the biggest smile—I mean, let's face it, the heroes have to get some pure and simple pleasure out of the mere act of pounding the bad guys every now and then, don't they? Nextwave only lasted 12 issues, but maybe, for now, that's enough. After all, if there were too many self-contained, fun superhero titles around, people might wonder why there weren't more of them, and this would lead to the collapse of superhero comix as we know them, and then what would all the continuity porn addicts do?
The Salon (Nick Bertozzi; St. Martin's Griffin)
The artists of 1907 Europe are being killed by a strange blue woman. At the same time, the artists have discovered a strange and rare form of absinthe which allows them to enter one another's paintings. Could these things be related? Hmm. . . Alarmed at so many of her friends and acquaintances being killed, Gertrude Stein enlists the aid of fellow artists, including Picasso, Braque, Satie and Appollinaire, to investigate and try to stop these strange murders. Along the way, there's a running discussion of the relative merits of comics as/versus other forms of art (Picasso is enamored of the Katzenjammer Kids) that somehow ends with the birth of cubism. Bertozzi's art is not only evocative of the period, but also to some extent of each artist's work, and beautifully detailled and tinted. His story evokes the feeling of the period, as well as the artists and their various relatives and hangers-on as all too human; everybody mocks Picasso, but is secretly envious of his talent. Picasso is, despite not quite being the main character, easily the most vivid, and certainly the most frequently naked. (So remember, if you're going to read this, please don't read it in the state of Georgia, because Very Bad Things may happen if a child happens to be within 500 feet of this book when it's opened.)
Sinfest (Tatsuya Ishida; online at http://www.sinfest.net)
Sinfest follows three primary characters: first there's Slick, who wants to be a man-about-town, a playa, a pimp, except that he's also madly in love/lust with Monique, which makes him want to be a better person. The devil, needless to say, is not down with this, and tries vigorously to tempt Slick back into the ways of unrighteousness. Monique is a wannabe supermodel, and a surprisingly nice yet demanding person withall. Pig is . . . well, a pig. Add in a few sentient pets here and there. Oh, and also God the handpuppet/puppeteer, Confucius the Chinese dragon, and Buddha (who may or may not be a woman in this incarnation—it's a bit difficult to tell from the art). Jesus appears every now and again, sometimes in action/adventure movie versions of Bible stories (or perhaps that's Bible versions of action/adventure movies). Aside from the gag-a-day humor, Sinfest also manages to say something about religions, religiosity, and the conflict between what humans want to be and what we really are. Ishida's tried to submit the strip to various newspapers and syndicates, unsurprisingly without success. Seriously, can you imagine any North American daily touching a comic strip featuring God the puppeteer?
The Surrogates (Robert Venditti, Brett Weldele; Top Shelf)
The Surrogaes is a combination police procedural/science fiction tale/future dystopia story taking place in the near future in an Atlanta that nobody sane would want to live in. The division between haves and havenots is particularly savage, with some of the havenots being rounded up and placed into concentration camps as terrorists.The resistance carries interesting religious overtones as well, making it more difficult to navigate the difference between them. The haves now interact with the rest of the world through surrogates, android bodies constructed to be the fantasy/perfect version of themselves. Most people never actually interact with each other in the flesh, if it's avoidable, and, yes, this includes sex. Terrorists start destroying these androids, and police officers Harvey Greer and Pete Ford need to find out who's behind it all. Harvey's life is complicated because while he, for various reasons, avoids using a surrogate when he can, his wife refuses not to use her surrogate.She won't go out with him in her own flesh, but after a hard day's work, he doesn't want to deal with surrogates at all. You can see how this might cause the odd problem. In between sections of the story are magazine inserts, transcripts and other artifacts telling you what the society of the time is like, giving background to the story. Venditti writes a very grim and gritty story, and Weldele's artwork matches the tone well. Honestly, it's easy to see how this sort of thing could be come our future, technology allowing. After all, who wouldn't want to always be able to present their fantasy selves to the world, if that was an available choice? The Surrogates has been optioned for film, with Bruce Willis cast as Harvey Greer; despite not really looking much like the character (he's the guy being strangled in the thumbnail to the right), it's strangely correct casting.
Welcome to Tranquility, volume 1 (Gail Simone/Neil Googe; DC/Wildstorm)
A great beginning at exploring an interesting concept: what do you do with superheroes who start losing a step, misplace that special something, who get Alzheimer's—who just plain get old? In the Wildstorm universe, the answer is that they retire to Tranquility, a planned community grafted onto an existing small town. It's out of the way, and somehow, villains haven't come to Tranquility to get revenge on their nemeses—because, of course, most of those villains have aged along with the heroes, and a few of them live in Tranquility as well. After all, who else would know what those good old/bad old days were like? Interestingly enough, it's not just the aged and infirm who wind up in Tranquility. It also becomes a home for superhero celebrities who are no longer celebrated. A couple of superhero kids teams that lost favor as they grew up now live in Tranquility as well. The town is introduced to us through a locked-room mystery: who killed Mr. Articulate? Thomasina Lindo, Tranquility's sheriff, and entirely without powers herself, is the main character, investigating to find the murderer. As we meet the various characters, we also get flashbacks to them in their prime; it seems that almost everyone in Tranquility had, at one time or another, a comic book made about them, even the non-supers like Thomasina and her sister. Note that volume 1 of the title is far superior to volume 2; issues 7-12 suffer badly from a zombie plot, the devil and/or demons coming down to Tranquility, a peculiarly invisible crossover with Gen13, preparation for the "Armageddon/Revelations" line-wide Wildstorm crossovers . . . and it's just all too much for a new title to endure. That said, the second volume had its highlights, almost all in the flashback issues. "The Fabulous Lindo Sisters," involving Thomasina and her sister when they were young, and "Mangacide" were the sorts of things you'd really like to see more of. The title may or may not have ended—various people at DC/Wildstorm and Gail Simone herself insist that it hasn't, but it also appears that the title won't be resolicited until after Wildstorm goes through another four line-wide crossovers, including another with the main DC universe, so it's likely to be a good long time before we see it again. I hope that when/if we do, it's back to the sort of storytelling from the first arc.
Zombies Calling (Faith Erin Hicks; SLG; 15-page preview online at http://www.slgcomic.com/pages/prevzombies/prevzombies.html)
People who really enjoy zombie movies and stories will really love this story. This, strangely, would not be me. People who think zombies are OK in their proper place but would they please get out of the other stories? Those people, who would be me, will also enjoy the hell out of this story. Joss, a university student in Canada, loves zombie movies, to the point where she and her male roommate Robyn have analyzed and deconstructed the rules that govern zombie movies. For example: "Characters in a zombie movie, after being introduced to the zombies, will be transformed from ordinary folk to shotgun-wielding, zombie-ass-kicking ninjas . . . this is a rule I'm very happy exists, for reasons that will become obvious later." Her female roommate Sonnet thinks that they're both being silly, and that Joss is perhaps just the teensiest bit obsessive. This of course means that within a few pages, zombies start popping out of the woodwork, and Joss, indeed, becomes a zombie-ass-kicking ninja, albeit one that wields a mean jar of quarters rather than a shotgun. Joss figures that she and her friends can survive because they know the rules. Unfortunately, there is that pesky Rule Two. . . . The rollicking humor of the first section gradually yields to a somewhat more serious approach, as our heroines and hero have to deal with the fact that, yes, their former classmates have become creatures who really and truly are trying to eat their brains and maybe perhaps they should do something about that. Hicks' art, both cartoonish yet highly detailed (the zombies are really perfect), works for both the lighter early sections, and the more serious "trying to avoid having our brains snacked on" later section. The metatextualness of it all—the fact that it's a zombie story that's perfectly aware that it's a zombie story, that it tells us the rules and follows them — combines with everything else to make this easily the most enjoyable zombie story that I saw this year.
And that's it for this year's list. Next year, assuming that they don't suddenly turn bad, expect to see Atomic Robo, Proof and possibly Abyss on the list. (And probably fewer illustrations, if I didn't break the SH webmaster.)