2008 proved to be an interesting year. Fewer zombies, thank the deity of your choosing—or at least, I read fewer of them, so they didn't make it onto this list. A few more superheroes, depending on how you define things (and no, I didn't read Marvel's Secret Invasion or Dark Reign, and since DC's Final Crisis periodically made me want to bludgeon the DC brain trust vigorously about the head and shoulders with its own output, that won't be here either). Perhaps not as much space opera as I would have liked, but that's somehow a surprisingly difficult genre to find a lot of in comics. And it turns out that the world ends with a bang, a whimper, and just about every unpleasantness in between that you could imagine. A few themes did emerge in this year's reading:
1. Apocalypse yesterday
2. The War of the Worlds redux (see also: apocalypse yesterday)
3. Warren Ellis (what can I say? Man was busy this past year. See also: apocalypse yesterday.)
4. Everything old is new again (see also: War of the Worlds redux, apocalypse yesterday)
A very few items did carry over from last year's list—though for most of those, the noteworthy thing isn't so much the quality as the fact that at some point during the year, some of them just seemed to trail off mid-story, with their creators having to push them to the back burner due to other commitments, the stresses of life, etc. In any event, there were far fewer carry-over titles than I'd initially expected, which indicates that this year was pretty good for new speculative titles.
And as for the stuff that's new to the list, some of them may actually not be comics. Given the last two columns, that's probably not a surprise.
And so: alphabetically by title, forward into the fray!
All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison, writer/Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant, artwork; DC Comics, publisher)
Sitting entirely outside continuity but also taking advantage of it, perhaps one of the best stories ever about what makes Superman . . . well, Superman. Framed loosely around a version of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, Supes spends the entire series dying, thanks to one of Luthor's schemes that actually works. Knowing that he's dying, in the second half he sets out to leave Earth and its humans (and a few other beings) situated to live without him, as well as he can do. The strongest part is the last three issues of the series, especially issue 10, where Superman writes his last will and testament, and Morrison essentially unpacks the concept of what it means to be Superman and presents it to us. Issue 11 also contains the most stunning start to a Superman story possibly ever, featuring the execution of Lex Luthor; you're certain, right up until the last moment, that the story will back out, that there'll be a power failure, that there'll be a last moment reprieve, but no. The switch is actually thrown. There are many moments like that scattered through the series. Mind, some of them do get a little weird—at one point, Superman creates a little pocket universe of which he is (somewhat bemusedly) the god and possibly we are the inhabitants (because what's a superhero comic without a little blasphemy?), and what is it with DC and Luthor and the war blimps, anyway?—but it still reminds you why people still like reading about the Big Blue Boy Scout.
Anna Mercury: volume 1, The Cutter (Warren Ellis/Facundo Percio; Avatar)
Anna Mercury is an agent working for a very special British government agency that does some very strange things indeed. The explanation of what they do and why they do it involves, among other things, superstring theory and soap bubbles and pocket universes and alternate dimensions and boomerang theory and all sorts of other mad, weird science. It even manages to drag in the Eldridge and the Philadelphia Experiment, of all possible things. (The briefing that introduces the British Prime Minister to the program includes his memorable line, "Look, please, I was distracted by the exploding people." The PM is then assured, "We don't explode. Not anymore.") In her current mission, Anna Mercury needs to figure out what to do about a very difficult situation. Sheol City wants to secede from hyper-paranoid (somewhat understandably, as it turns out) New Ataraxia, and the Constellation is helping the Sheol underground in its rebellion. New Ataraxia has taken Sheol's attempted secession very badly, building a very, very, very big gun (The Cutter) and placing it on their moon, so that they can fire down and destroy Sheol City. Anna has to figure out a way to disable the Cutter so that it can't be used against all of Sheol City, which would kill millions, without revealing where she's from, because while the Ataraxians know that Something Is Out There, they don't know who or where—hence the paranoia. Anna clearly enjoys her job, for all that it's amazingly dangerous and difficult—the flight controller mentions to the PM that their agents tend to go insane, that Anna Mercury is the best special agent in the world, and "the betting pool says she was quite nuts before she got here." The climactic battle features Anna versus The Giant Cannon, and, incidentally, most of New Ataraxia's military. Anna Mercury herself is quite assured and self-confident, with a very take-no-prisoners attitude. It's not quite classic superheroics—Anna has no special abilities of her own, aside from a moderate degree of insanity, and at one point she's forced to kill a rather mindnumbing number of people, in order to prevent the deaths of countless multitudes more. The artwork and production design are seriously gorgeous, somewhat Art-Deco inflected, and overall, it's a great science fiction story.
Breakfast of the Gods (Brendan Douglas Jones; available online at http://www.webcomicsnation.com/poyorick/)
I've seen this particular series described elsewhere as "a cease and desist order waiting to happen." And that's undeniably true. But it is, frankly, quite an awesome cease and desist order waiting to happen. Basically, it's the story of the lives lived by all those breakfast food corporate images—Cap'n Crunch, Super Sugar Bear, Snap, Crackle, Pop, the Honey Bee, and many others. It's what they do when they're not on commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. These characters normally live the life idyllic in Cerealia. But a darkness has fallen o'er the land, a darkness caused by the lust for power . . . an unusually flavorful darkness. Breakfast is all about what happens when someone decides that they want more, and they're willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Eventually, the peoples of Cerealia and elsewhere are forced to defend themselves against the rampant evil. It's peculiarly disquieting to see the Saturday morning trademarks of your youth going into a surprisingly realistic and gory war. (That poor, poor Twinkie . . .) Book Two, "O Cap'n, my Cap'n," was the 2008 volume in which, among other things, we see the face of god, and this year's volume is the perfectly titled "Apocalypse Yum," in which we see the war and all its consequences. The story is still ongoing; one suspects—just suspects—that the legal departments of the various companies are also waiting to see what happens before they loose the big guns because they're enjoying it just as much as anyone else.
Atomic Robo—Volume 1: Atomic Robo & the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne—Volume 2: Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War
Nikola Tesla invented a robot with full artificial intelligence, including a surprising range of emotions. Eventually, Robo is recognized as a sentient creature, if that's quite the right way to put it, and more or less accorded full human rights. He winds up with his own science hero team, the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne, who go with him to various hotspots to uncover whatever may be there, to fix what's gone wrong, etc. Robo has an archenemy, of course—the brain in the jar in the above page, in fact, and you'd be surprised how deadly a brain in a jar can be. In the first volume, among other things, the Fightin' Scientists go up against an ambulatory pyramid (as in the Great Pyramid of Giza, yes); in volume 2, the story goes back in time to tell of Robo working with the U.S. Army and allies to take down some nefarious Nazi projects that would have turned the tide of war. Atomic Robo is more or less an all-ages title, and so far, generally rollicking moderately violent fun.
Bayou (Jeremy Love/Patrick Morgan; DC/Zuda, online at http://zudacomics.com/bayou/)
Lee, a little black girl, lives with her father in the deep South in 1933. Her father is accused of a murder he did not commit, that of a little girl, Lily, who was once Lee's friend (and not a very good one, but then, friendships between black and white in 1933 could only go just so far). Lee saw part of what happened to her friend—a creature rose out of the bayou and took her—but it was so fantastical that she's not believed when she tries to tell her story. Therefore, she has to find the evidence that will clear her father before he gets lynched, which is clearly what's going to happen. She embarks on a remarkable series of adventures, eventually guided by Bayou, who may or may not be a sort of animate spirit of the swamp in the shape of a man. (That would, if nothing else, explain why Bayou is green.) For all the storybook trappings—the otherworld of the bayou is inhabited by all manner of talking animals, wearing clothes, living in houses, using weapons with appalling skill—Bayou is not quite a story for children. At one point, Lee has a memory of her now-dead mother talking to her in a surprisingly direct manner about sex; she's too young to understand what her mother means and it would probably also go over a little kid's head, but an adult would certainly understand. Morgan's illustrations are wonderful and horrific and gory and fantastical. The story and art contrast the horror of the fantastical with the everyday horror that Lee and her father have to live with.
Casanova: vol. 2, Gula (Matt Fraction, writer/Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, art; Image, publisher; also included in "best of 2007")
The "Gula" (gluttony) story line first started in 2007, but concluded in 2008 in a particularly trippy and memorable way. In volume 2, the story became not "who is Casanova Quinn," but "when is Casanova Quinn," as people begin to notice that he's not only not where he's supposed to be in the timeline, but he's also in the wrong universe altogether. Zephyr Quinn, Casanova's sister, becomes the super secret spy agent upon whom everyone depends to defeat the nefarious world-ending conspiracy du jour. At the same time, she's also trying to figure out what happened to her brother. Eventually, we do discover when and where Casanova has been . . . which is the point at which your jaw drops (along with all of the characters), and all you can think is "What? . . . . How? . . . . No, really, how?" (A question that does not quite get answered, as it turns out.) The storytelling is very dense—it rewards repeated reading—but at the same time, it's still just plain spy-movie (or comix), sexy hyper-violent multi-armed fun. Unfortunately, it may be quite some time before we see Casanova again; the creators put the series on hiatus due to other commitments which, alas, actually make much more money for them.
Chuck (television series, NBC)
As mentioned in my last column, Chuck is a television series that has a consistent speculative fiction premise and execution, and a very good and strong storytelling engine. Also, wildly fun and entertaining. The second season finale was a thing of beauty to behold, showing that the writers and creators understood how the hero's journey should work. After having spent two years with the Intersect 1.5 imposed on him through no fault or choice of his own, Chuck finally gets the damn thing out of his head, thanks to his father, and is freed from (and paid for) his service to the U.S. government . . . only to make the deliberate choice to take the burden of Intersect 3.0 into his head, to become a human computer and intelligence repository one more time. And this time, it very clearly is a choice, albeit under a certain amount of time pressure, as Casey and Sarah (the people with Chuck in the picture to the right) are even at that very moment battling the bad guys to keep them from taking Intersect 3.0. But he could, quite reasonably, have decided simply to destroy the thing, and let the government decide to fix its own intelligence issues, and he chose instead to take it onto himself. (If nothing else, it looks like the intersect may be a sight safer in Chuck's head than in its officially designated computer site. This makes the third consecutive intersect that's been destroyed. Granted, an inside job every time, and granted, this time by Chuck, with some help from the guy who destroyed the first intersect. But still. Three times. Perhaps the mobile intersect has something to recommend it as a concept.)
Dan Dare (Garth Ennis/Gary Erskine; originally published by now-defunct Virgin, omnibus to be republished by Dynamite in late 2009)
A revival of an old British series, Dan Dare is space opera at its finest. Dan Dare himself was a courageous space pilot, back in the day. He fought the good fight, then retired (to a most surprising place) when Britain changed into something that he could no longer fight for. In the meantime, the rest of the world went to hell, with nuclear war bustin' out all over, and Britain surviving only because they had an effective SDI. The U.S. is essentially a land of blasted craters where cities ought to be, as are Canada and Mexico and most of Asia. But the beings that Britain thought they'd defeated back in Dan Dare's day are still very much alive, and have retrenched to become more effective enemies. The British go to Dan Dare to recruit him to rejoin the fight, and of course he eventually agrees. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and losses more than people can bear. Epic space battles, and even one odd moment of very mildly (for Ennis) sick humor—one person dies in the sort of teleporter accident you always see people getting warned about, but almost never see depicted. Erskine's art is just perfect, matching that sort of old-time storytelling while being perfectly clean and modern.
Drafted (Mark Powers/Rebekah Isaacs, Joseph Baker; Devil's Due) Drafted doesn't explicitly reference the "War of the Worlds" concept as such, but it deals with alien invasion and war between worlds; it's just that our world is somewhat incidentally one of the ones at war, as the main war is between two other species, and humanity is more or less just in the way. One species presents itself explicitly as a conquering invader, and the other as a savior to those being attacked by the invaders. Strangely enough, when a war between two outside powers comes to your doorstep, telling the difference between conqueror and savior becomes very difficult indeed. In one of the invaders' first actions, they end war in the Middle East . . . by burying Jerusalem under tons of sand. They then start drafting people by teleporting them into the spacecraft, to learn how to use the weapons and space ships they'll need to use to battle the other invaders. (The space ships look rather strongly like the small alien craft in the film Independence Day.) A variety of people get pulled into the war effort from all levels, including street people, petty criminals, and even the U.S. President, whose wife winds up taking over his office because many of the designated successors wind up either dead or gone. The story winds up being much more involved than it looks at first sight, of course.
Empowered, vols 3-4 (Adam Warren; Dark Horse; also in "best of 2007")
Our heroine's story gets both deeper and darker in these two volumes. Somewhat without her knowledge or realization, Empowered begins to discover more of her skinsuit's powers. As that happens, the suit also starts reacting to her emotional states, showing that both it and she are much more powerful than we'd known. At the same time, we learn more about the pasts of Thugboy and Ninjette, her boyfriend and best friend, and the possible dooms they have awaiting them. Ninjette may be forcibly married to someone from another ninja crime syndicate family (no, really), and Thugboy turns out to have been an accidentally very, very bad criminal indeed, having somewhat unintentionally helped kill another superhero. While Emp knows about Ninjette's difficulties—though not that she's a budding alcoholic—she's entirely unaware of Thugboy's past. We also find out a few surprising things about Sistah Spooky, Empowered's nemesis among the superheroes. It turns out that there's also a telepathic superhero by the name of Mindfuck (sic, including redaction), who once had a thing with Sistah Spooky, and who explains much of her reaction to Emp. There's also another hero called The Maidman—a big, muscular blond guy who wears a maid's outfit while he pursues justice. Empowered's best moments come at the Caped Justice Awards, where she's unexpectedly nominated as "Outstanding superhero deserving of wider recognition" (and therein lies a story, of course)—it's basically their Best New Artist award. During the ceremony things go really spectacularly and drastically wrong, and it falls to our heroine to try to rescue practically everyone, including those who seem to hate her. Meanwhile, we see her becoming more proficient and effective as a superhero . . . but she hasn't realized just how much she's been improving. (That said, she still gets tied up rather a lot.) Warren also lays the groundwork for some future events, and I'm just hoping that we never see the fire elemental again, because that guy is one seriously nasty piece of work.
Freakangels (Warren Ellis/Paul Duffield; Avatar, online at http://www.freakangels.com)
Freakangels is the story of what happens after the end of the world. To quote the first panel: "23 years ago, 12 strange children were born in England at the very same moment. 6 years ago, the world ended." And, as you read the story, it becomes clear that these 12 strange children—now all young adults—in fact ended the world themselves. You can't tell how, or what they did, but it's clear that they did it all on their own. What we have seen is the aftereffects; London is substantially under water. Society seems to have regressed back to a sort of pre-industrial, early industrial era, scavenging what they can from various places. Since the London we've seen seems seriously depopulated, there's a fair amount of nonperishable stuff to scavenge. They've lost contact with anywhere outside England, and, indeed, with most of England itself. All of the Freakangels, as they call themselves, have strange and interesting powers.
All of them seem to have mind powers in various strengths and forms. Most of them have decided that they need to do something for the group of people under their protection, as a way of making up for, you know, ending the world. (Not that anyone outside the Freakangels seems to know what they've done, oh no, no, no. That way lies madness and lynchings.) And Mark, the 13th and as yet unseen Freakangel, seems to have a grudge against the other 12 and has been trying to kill them, or to get other people to do so. (We have as yet received no explanation of how 12 individual births results in 13 Freakangels, but there you go. Presumably Mark is either older or younger, but I'm sure we'll find out.) Unfortunately for Mark, not only do they wind up not getting killed, but they end up recruiting the attempted assassins and families thereof to join the people in Whitechapel under their protection. The story updates six pages per week, so it's moving at a pretty brisk clip. It's truly a fascinating and entertaining read.
Helen Killer (Andrew Kreisberg/Matthew JLD Rice; Arcana)
First, the title is not a typo. Second, this story may be the most bizarrely awesome thing I've seen in a while. In real life, Helen Keller was blind and deaf, and an incredibly accomplished woman. She met all sorts of luminaries of her day, including Frederick Douglass and Alexander Graham Bell. In this story, her early life is the same, including meeting Anne Sullivan, who helps her retire her "Phantom," the personality she thought herself to be when she was locked into her dark and silent world. Anne and Helen are walking home from a college lecture when they're set upon by thugs. Cornered, and unsure where Anne is or if she might be hurt, Helen reaches up to touch a switch on her large, clunky dark glasses (the omnicle) . . . and suddenly she can see and hear. Moreover, she's filled with a fearsome rage and an awesome physical power. It turns out that Alexander Graham Bell has fashioned something in those glasses that uses a carrier wave into her brain that gives Helen sight and hearing, but also creates that rage and power as an unintended side effect.
Anne Sullivan and Bell are deeply concerned about that, since it takes longer to recover each time she uses the omnicle. However, Helen's mad omnicle-induced combat skills draw the attention of the Secret Service, who wants her to help save President McKinley from an anarchist's assassination attempt. She fails at that (History, I'm sure, was relieved), but in the process also discovers the head of the presidential assassination conspiracy and follows him through what may be the most awesome chase sequence ever. For people who like fight comix, there's also a stunning sequence involving Helen, the conspirators, her staff, an impressive roundhouse kick to several faces, and swords. The conspiracy winds up being much more comprehensive than simply killing a president, with longer term and more devastating goals, and Helen winds up having to deal with that as well, much of the time while blind and deaf without the omnicle, which gets taken by the bad guys. Rice's black and white artwork is very, very good, conveying character and expression very well. It's perhaps the oddest superhero comic you'll ever see.
The Hole: Consumer Culture, volume 1 (Damian Duffy/John Jennings; Front Forty Press)
The authors say that The Hole "is a science fiction horror story about the buying and selling of race in America, the simultaneous worship and degradation of African Americans in popular culture, and the tearing down of physical and psychological boundaries." The vodou god Papa Legba finds himself at something of an impasse in dealing with modern consumer culture. Carla Bonte, manager of a successful business gets visited by Papa Legba, who wants to take advantage of her ideas. However, when Papa Legba lets her know that her husband is having an affair, things begin to go very wrong for her—among other things, she slaps him at the very idea, resulting in the loss of four fingers, and she was "just lucky that her thumb didn't touch his face." The personal lives of all of the main characters—Carla Bonte, her daughter Trina, her husband, and Curtis the tattoo artist and Trina's boyfriend who's just out of a horrific experience in prison—are thoroughly out of balance, thanks to overemphasis on material things, drugs, and all sorts of other desires. At the same time that the people realize how little control they have in their own lives, Papa Legba realizes that he's lost control of some of his aspects or avatars; they've become (rather gruesomely) independent of him. The story moves back and forth in time—usually, but not always, with date stamps on the different periods. The fight for the past and future, between the new gods of the modern world and the old gods of tradition, takes place between Papa Legba and his aspects, through Carla and her family and Curtis. The story is clearly for mature readers—there's not only some over-the-top violence and gore, but also a fair amount of nudity and sex. And it's not an easy read; you'll need to go through it two or three times to maybe get everything. But it's definitely worth it.
Nadia's very strange day continues to be very strange. She's discovering more of the operating rules of the land in which she finds herself. She's got a startling amount of control, mostly unconscious, because she's the keeper of the Key (which she does not know yet) and because the land responds to her nightmares. Which, as we eventually see, are fairly terrifying. We still don't understand what exactly the game is between Nadia and Death—neither does she, for that matter. And the story went on hiatus at the end of 2008 due to personal issues, and has not yet resumed.
Locke and Key: volume 1, Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez; IDW)
As mentioned in an earlier column, Locke and Key tells a tale of human and supernatural terror. A family is terrorized and brutalized by some young men. It turns out that these men are being driven and inspired by Echo, a voice in the well, who wants the family to move back to the town where the father came from. Only then can she have access to the children, one of whom she tries to get to bring her the key that will release her from where she's been imprisoned. The story doesn't move quickly; it sets up the characters well to make you care about what happens to them. And apart from the horrific aspects, the situation is easy to relate to; a family forced by circumstance to move to a new town, both children and adults having difficulties making friends, the children making some bad decisions both through lack of knowledge and in trying to connect to others. The Keyhouse also has a series of doors that, if you have the key, may open into something fantastic or awful. And Echo wants that key, not just to get out of the well, but for the doors. The horror builds, precisely because you know just a tiny bit more of what's going on than the kids in the story do, and you keep hoping and wanting them to see what's going on. To be sure, for all that the story tries to evoke a certain type of horror, I could have done without the coy sledgehammer of the town where the family comes to live being called "Lovecraft." Notwithstanding that one false step, Hill does an excellent job of marrying human-scale horror to the supernatural, and Rodriguez's art is the perfect complement.
The Middleman (television series, cancelled, ABC Family)
The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McClane; Viper Comics)
Produced by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the same person who wrote the original comic books on which the television series was based, The Middleman was one of the loopiest but most enjoyable television series of the past season. Starring Matt Keeslar as the Middleman, and Natalie Morales as his somewhat reluctantly recruited assistant Wendy Watson, the job of the Middleman was to stand between us and all the strange and sometimes hostile beings out there. Sometimes they deal with supernatural forces—one episode involved a trip to hell, and one of their constant informants was a succubus gone good who runs a fashion studio cum halfway house for other minions of evil who want to leave those evil ways behind. Frequently, they deal with aliens, some of whom are invading boy bands from outer space, and some of whom just want to live quietly among us. We even got treated to an alternate dimension episode, in which the alternate world Middleman had gone . . . well, not evil, precisely, but he was no longer the relentlessly stalwart force for good he was intended to be, and Wendy Watson, who had been accidentally dropped in from her proper dimension, had to recall him to his proper sense of duty. It was wonderfully entertaining, and, as with most of the speculative stories on television, cut down before its prime. (Seriously, what is with people? Why don't they want to watch the good stuff?) At about the same time as the series hit television, Viper collected the three previous volumes in The Collected Series Indispensability, so that people could see the story on which it was based. The final episode was never actually produced, and will be turned into a comic book to come out hopefully at the same time as the DVD set, which will be out in July.
Popgun, volume 2 (eds. Joe Keatinge and Mark Andrew Smith; Image)
An anthology annual, Popgun includes short stories by many creators. While not all of the stories are specifically speculative, most have some sort of speculative angle, and all of them are very good. Especially noteworthy stories include:
- "The Lifecycle of the Mysterious Manjuu" by Derek Yu, the tale of a creature that looks like, but isn't, a mushroom;
- "Red," by Yeray Gil Hernandez, an unusual reworking of Little Red Riding Hood;
- "Post Zero Hour" by Matthew Weldon and Jacob Baake, the tale of a post-apocalyptic shoot-out;
- "The Wager" by Grant Alter and Ronald Salas, a tale of a bet for very high stakes indeed;
- "Amo Jamon" by Gabriel Batista, a very touching, affecting, and somewhat appalling story of what happens when one gets sick and dies in an anthropomorphic animal world;
- "Survival of the Festive," by Sheldon, about what happens when the personifications (more or less) of holidays get a little . . . upset;
- "2 Copper Pieces" by Jim Zubkavich and Chris Stevens, about the unintended consequences of hunting a dragon.
The collection includes many more good stories, more than I can list here. It's not cheap—cover price is $30, although you can get it for less from Amazon—but since it contains nearly 500 full color pages and over 50 individual stories, it's well worth the money.
Proof (Alexander Grecian/Riley Rossmo, Dave Casey; backup stories by others; Image)
Think of Proof as "X-Files in Black." Which is to say, a little of The X-Files/Men in Black vibe of senior partner knowing about the supernatural and/or actually being a bit paranormal, and junior partner just getting her first exposure to these things. The first arc, "Goatsucker" introduces John "Proof" Prufrock, investigative agent of the Lodge (a Canadian/U.S. Government joint) by profession, Sasquatch by species; his partner, Ginger Brown, is selected for the Lodge because she sees something unusual on a case during her NYPD days and refuses to alter her report to say she didn't, which makes her the perfect partner for a sasquatch. Their first mission: to find and capture El Chupacabra/the Goatsucker, which has been committing some gruesome murders. In the course of their investigations, we see much of the world that we hadn't known about—for example, fairies exist, and they're wee tiny unspeakably nasty creatures. At the same time, Ginger has her own adventures in New York, having met the Golem of Prague (yes, it's a bit mislocated). Great artwork, good story (although the cryptoids—kind of like the popups on the old MTV show Pop-up Video—can get just a bit annoying). It's a blend of the supernatural and mysteries and investigative procedurals. At the same time, we see the lives of the major characters. Proof is a very lonesome creature; he seems to be one of the very last of his kind, if not the last. Ginger leaves her boyfriend, in part for the position at the Lodge. Elvis, who starts out as a sheriff and winds up one of the Lodge's investigators, loses his mother to El Chupacabra. Occasionally sad personal moments aside, it's fun to watch the story move between science fiction, fantasy, and fact.
Rasl 1: The Drift (Jeff Smith; Cartoon Books)
Rasl is a thief who works the Drift, a bridge between dimensions that he travels by using what appear to be, more or less, jet engines strapped to his back. He survives by stealing things from one dimension, then bringing them back to his home dimension and selling them, frequently to some rather nefarious collectors. He can't always control the drift; sometimes he winds up in entirely the wrong dimension and has to gather his energy to make another jump to get home. Traveling the drift also hurts him physically. His girlfriend Annie is a prostitute with a heart of gold, at least where he's concerned. At one point, Rasl goes into a reverie, a flashback that shows us a chunk of his past and begins to explain how Robert got involved with The Compound, and had an affair with his coworker's wife. Not surprisingly, everything somehow went wrong, which led to him becoming Rasl. And through it all, through all the parallel universes, he's being pursued by the lizard-faced man, apparently from The Compound, who wants the dimension-jumping jet engines back. Smith has a knack for making you feel for the character, even though he's clearly a bit reprehensible; after all, he aided adultery and stole from his employer, and somewhere there's a dead body that never gets explained in the first volume. It's all high-concept mad science and adventure.
Resurrection (Marc Guggenheim/David Dumeer, Douglas Dabbs; Oni Press)
In Resurrection, the question is: so the aliens are gone, what happens now? Most of the world's infrastructure is heavily damaged, if not entirely destroyed, but somehow the government has kept itself safe in the Greenbriar bunker, of all places. And it explores not only what happens next, but what happened before—actions carried out by aliens and people during the invasion itself, many of which can only be described as reprehensible. In Second Wave, the aliens figure out some of what it was that was killing them in the planet's atmosphere, and send a second wave of better prepared attackers, on the "if at first you don't succeed" principle. We see how people react as an event they thought was over begins again, how they treat themselves and each other, what they are and are not willing to do to keep themselves and their loved ones alive.
Templar, Arizona (Spike; online at http://www.templaraz.com) - vol. 1: The Great Outdoors—vol. 2: The Mob Goes Wild—vol. 3: And a Stick To Beat the Devil With
Templar is a city of three million people in Arizona, but it's not quite like any town in any Arizona we know. It's more like Arizona turned on its ear, an Arizona that quite literally could not exist in our world. Religious subcultures have exactly the same sort of public existence as the religious cultures we're used to, but they're very . . . different. People who have revived the cultures and religions of ancient Egyptians, for example. Sincerests, who insists on being sincere and telling the truth, whether you want to hear it or not. Every now and again, the odd riot. A popular television talk show, featuring a young woman who has an aversion to clothing. Any clothing. Prostitution is legal, if not entirely approved. A diner called Xenophage that features "morally indefensible dining"—puppies, whole or quarters, braised in human milk sounds so delicious, doesn't it? Through it all, we follow a few different people, but primarily Ben Kowalski and his neighbors. Ben is an almost pathologically quiet and shy person, easily intimidated almost into panic attacks by . . . well, almost anyone, really. To be sure, Templar doesn't seem to be telling one big story; Spike seems to be telling several smaller, interrelated stories that may eventually build into something big. Eventually. But for now, it's telling smaller stories of a town that doesn't exist in an Arizona that couldn't exist. The story has been online since 2005; recently, the first two volumes of Templar were bound and printed for sale, which is probably the easiest way to catch up on the story in big lumps if you haven't yet started. The 2008 volume, "And a stick to beat the devil with" is in the process of being printed.
Therefore Repent! (Jim Munroe/Salgood Sam; No Media Kings/IDW Publishing; available free online at No Media Kings.)
In which the 24-hour shining rapture comes to earth. The godly rise above, and the ungodly . . . well, don't. To be sure, not all those that remain were ungodly. Some refused to leave their loved ones, and some simply couldn't get outside in time—if you weren't outside when the rapture came, you didn't get a second chance. And on the whole, hell on earth doesn't quite happen. Many people wind up with magical powers, some of which express themselves by transforming the bodies of those people, which can certainly be hellish enough. The story takes place during the Bush II presidency. He's one of the ones left behind, for whatever reason. Mummy and Raven, two of the people left behind, are the major viewpoint characters. They live in a Chicago neighborhood—technically squatters, though there are few enough people left to inhabit the city. They pick up a dog that they discover can talk, much to their surprise, even in those days. As Mummy and Raven try to build their lives, they see the world slowly becoming even stranger around them. Splitters, of whom the president is one, believe that there's going to be a second wave rapture, in which all the overlooked godly will be taken up. (That they may not be considered among the godly never occurs to the Splitters, of course.) There also seems to be an angel brigade, tasked—or having tasked themselves—with the cleansing of the ungodly. Turns out that some of the angels are gay. Who knew? Also, angels use machine guns. The story doesn't give you answers to all the questions it raises—we find out the truth behind some things and not others. Salgood Sam's textured black and white artwork fits the story perfectly.
Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (Gerard Way/Gabriel Ba; Dark Horse)
On the same day, dozens of mutant children are born in an instant to women around the world, many of whom hadn't actually been pregnant until that moment. Not all of the children survive their births, given that they're rather traumatic. Professor Hargreaves adopts as many of these surviving infants as he can find, eventually winding up with seven children to raise. It becomes fairly clear that Hargreaves is a rather dreadful father (for what turns out to be a very good reason); mostly he wants to use them to demonstrate his scientific principles regarding their superpowers. Then we jump 10 years into the future, where the kids are fighting the renegade Eiffel Tower. (No, really. Renegade Eiffel Tower, rampaging through Paris.) Then we jump forward another 20 years, where the group is gathering to find out if it's true that their father is dead. It's clear that there was some sort of dramatic break between the children and with their father; they can scarcely stand the sight of one another. Their mother, or rather, Professor Hargreaves's wife—she at least seems to have been married to him—she's very . . . well. She's quite unusual, let's put it that way. And, of course, it turns out that she'd been estranged from the professor as well. All of the children have some quite remarkable powers; Rumor, for example, tells lies that become truths. And the seventh child, Vanya, whom the professor thought untalented turns out to have a very subtle power; she was so profoundly alienated, however, that she didn't even return for the funeral. And yet she winds up, of course, being critically important. One of the enemies of the family has cooked up a scheme to use the Orchestra Verdammten to destroy the world, and the family has to somehow pull itself together to stop him. That they will is anything but a foregone conclusion in this very different superhero series. Ba's art is absolutely perfect for this series. I honestly can't imagine that anyone else would do better or be more appropriate for a story that's simultaneously this loopy and this serious. His art brings out the humor in the characters without making them ridiculous.
Outstanding single issues or short works
For works where the individual item isn't contained in a series or larger work mentioned in the main list above, or where the total output wound up being relatively few high quality pages. Also, very, very oddball stuff down here. You wuz warned.
Aetheric Mechanics (Warren Ellis and Gianluca Pagliarani; Avatar; 48 pages)
The latest entry in Ellis' Apparat imprint for Avatar. A soldier returns to London from the frontlines in a war in 1905 (what war, you might be asking), headed for his home. He gets into this thing that looks like nothing so much as a teapot with the top cut off, and the thing putt-putts into the air and sails gracefully off over London, passing by a battleship moored well above ground. Thus we are notified that, yes, this is alternate and not real history. Society has become a mash-up of a few different things, Victorian steampunk and pulp detective stories and other literary tropes. It turns out that a specific event caused these tropes to be imprinted on the world—and even in a review many months after publication, I won't spoil that. Sax Raker and his assistant Dr. Watcham are called in to investigate what seems to be a murder, but it rapidly expands until they stumble into the truth of their world. Gianluca Pagliarani's black and white art is exactly right for a story that's set more or less in the past. It does have a bit fewer of the normal Ellis twitches—it's considerably less foul-mouthed, for one, even if one character apparently tells another to do something anatomically improbable at one point. The conclusion, I have to say, made me snicker, because I keep seeing stories written about the event at the end, and I was simply not expecting to see it in that context. Overall a very well-written, enjoyable story.
Comic Book Tattoo (editor, Rantz A. Hoseley; executive editor, Tori Amos; Image)
An anthology like the above-mentioned Popgun, Comic Book Tattoo is based on the songs of Tori Amos. The physical format of the book is really remarkable; it's easily the largest comic book I've ever seen, even counting the oversized Absolute line from DC; the size gives the art much more space than you'd see in most books. (It's also easily the heaviest comic book by weight I've ever owned.) Most of the artists have gone off on some very impressive flights of fancy. Again, not all of the stories are speculative, but a few really stand out:
- "Bouncing off Clouds" by Josh Hechinger and Matthew Humphreys, about a most unorthodox delivery service;
- "Girl," by Jonathan Tsuei, Eric Canete and Saskia Gatekunst, about what a young woman does when God's messengers come calling;
- "Here. In my head" by Elizabeth Genco and Carla Speed McNeil, about the choices a young woman has to make;
- "Caught a Lite Sneeze" by Mike Mailhack, about which all I can say is that the title more or less covers the topic;
- "Devils and Gods," Jessica Staley and Shane White, about a young girl and her father.
Dresden Codak (Aaron Diaz; online at http://www.dresdencodak.com)
The "Hob" storyline finally came to an end, featuring fascinating WTF storytelling and great art. (This page contains some truly spectacular work.) You really do need to read it through more than once to figure out what's happening and why it's happening, and the relationship of the ending to the beginning of the story. Only 12 pages were published in 2008. Despite the brevity, we still get a satisfying conclusion to "Hob," in which Kimiko sacrifices a great deal in her attempt to save the world and/or universe from the people trying to impose their will upon it.
Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury (Brandon Thomas/Lee Ferguson, Mark Deering; Archaia)
Miranda Mercury is a space-adventuring young woman, whose adventures have been recounted in 294 previous issues (in another dimension, it seems). She and her sidekick, Jack Warning, rescue people and recover important artifacts. Jack loves Miranda—though I'm not sure whether or not he's in love with her, and it's clear that they'd both do anything for each other. That said, they have a strong disagreement when Jack wants to do something to help Miranda with a very serious problem, and her ethics simply won't allow it. The writing in the first issue does a great job of introducing the characters and the situation, and the art is strong and vivid, and helps convey the story. In an entirely personal observation, Miranda Mercury may be one of the very few black women in comics today drawn with kinky hair—and also the most bizarre ponytail in comics as part of the bargain. The creators have one of the hard luck stories of this year's list. They published the first issue of a well-received series, and then Archaia promptly went into reorganization and stopped publishing anything for nearly a year. The authors, in putting the best face on this, noted that there was something of a surfeit of titles with women named Mercury anyway, and that perhaps waiting until later would be best. And now it looks like Archaia will publish the series again later this year! . . .7nbsp;. against volume 2 of Anna Mercury.
Mark of Aeacus (Charles "Zan" Christensen/Mark Brill; Class Comics)
Something of a surprise to find this title on this label, since Class Comics publishes primarily porn comics, and this story, despite having one (and only one) lengthy but not particularly explicit sex scene, ain't porn. Jack, our protagonist, has been having himself a bad life lately. As a result, he lets himself get picked up by a sympathetic older man from out of town. There follows a prolonged, but surprisingly not particularly salacious, sex scene. There's no attempt to titillate or arouse. It's here that we get flashbacks to Jack getting gay-bashed and his suicide attempt. We get flashbacks to what the mark of Aeacus has led the businessman's body to do. We also get flashbacks to what appears to be Aegina and the mythological Aeacus. But mostly, we see the mark of Aeacus itself, a tattoo low on the businessman's back, transfer itself most dramatically from the businessman to Jack. Being as he's rather busy at the time, Jack doesn't notice this himself until the next day, when he wakes alone and discovers that the businessman is gone, and he has a tattoo of a half-closed eye, surrounded by decoration, under his navel. And then, of course, the fun begins. Brill's art is striking, dark, and subtle and entirely unlike anything you'd expect to see in a Class Comics title, being only incidentally and infrequently explicit. Christenson's story, like the art, is also understandably dark; you get a strong sense of Jack's despair and how lost he is, his confusion at how he's been changed the morning after. It leaves you curious to see what happens to Jack after the end of the first issue. Unfortunately, Class prints all of its titles as short annuals, which works well enough for stories where the overall plot is less developed, but profoundly annoying for something where it is. Nonetheless, a very good beginning, and I really want to see what happens next.
Witch Doctor: First Incision (Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner; available online at http://www.witchdoctorcomic.com/)
The title bills itself as a "medical horror story." It's horror mated to some very, very weird mad science. Dr. Vincent Morrow, who seems to have had his license lifted for some reason, views various supernatural infestations as nothing more than conditions to be treated, amenable to the discovery of their sources through judicious application of scientific methods. He views himself as the man who can protect Earth from magic through the proper application of the right medical and laboratory techniques. Seifert gives the doctor just the right balance of curiosity and scientific detachment—as detached as one can be when a demon parasite lunges from someone's mouth at your face, anyway—and Ketner's art is a perfect match to the content and style. The first issue isn't all that scary, if mostly because it's so short—although, for something entirely in black and white, it manages to be reasonably gross and icky—but it is a lot of mad science fun.
And that's it for this year's list. From what I've seen, speculative fiction titles seem to be ramping up slowly this year, so if the pace doesn't increase, next year's list may have a lot of repeats. But it may also include still developing titles like A Girl and Her Fed or Sophia Awakening or new volumes of Anna Mercury or Empowered, or something established like Wasteland or Fables or the new volume of Astro City: Dark Age. It will be interesting finding out.