Favorite comics of 2010

I’ve already covered this ground at PopMatters, and will again at some point later this month, but as I suggest in my December column, those selections are more about the themes I address in “Worlds in Panels” than about what I really enjoyed this year.

And that’s what I turn to here. As with my TV selections, these reflect my own idiosyncracies, which is to say, I read what I like, or think I’ll like, and don’t read what doesn’t interest me.

My list is divided into long form works and/or series I’m reading in trade, and books that I read monthly or as uncollected serials. I narrowed my favorites to five for each format, but also have generous additions of ‘honorable mention’ and ‘special mention’ titles.

Long form/trade collections (in no particular order).

Duncan the Wonder Dog Show One by Adam Hines (AdHouse). It is beyond the scope of this blog post to unpack the imagery of this visually complicated, mixed media book, but what has resonated strongly with me on initial reading is Hines’s brilliant effort at imagining what animals would say if they could speak like humans. Most importantly, he differentiates between animals, giving birds different voices than monkeys, companion animals different voices than wild, etc., while clearly individuating between the animals as well. What is at issue in these differentiated voices is not so much how different species, and individuals speak, but how they think, and what they might value. Most affecting for me are the voices of the companion animals, especially the dogs. In Hines’s world, humans and dogs remain fully co-evolved, and co-dependent. The only difference is that we can have actual conversations, and not just imaginary ones. The story of Bundle struck so many chords with me that it made me cry for lost friends, and wonder more deeply about the thoughts and emotions of those still living with us.

The Saga of Rex by Michel Gagne (Image). My initial thoughts on this book can be found here, but as I continue to think about it, one of the additional points of interest is how effectively Gagne uses pages as panels. Maybe this makes Rex veer on the edge of ‘picture book’, but it is also appropriate to convey the scale of the story that the hero finds himself in. Saga indeed.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (Pantheon). I made this selection largely for the reasons given in the PopMatters column linked above, but also want to mention that I would not have thought that this book would be on this list after I first read it. But the fact remains that I think about the book a lot. Neufeld’s compositions and colors come to mind, often unbidden, leading me to recall the humanity of his art and his narrative. Maybe there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done by people like Joe Sacco already, but it is still done very well.

Batgirl volume 1: Batgirl Rising, written by Bryan Q. Miller, with pencils by Tim Levins, Trevor Scott & Lee Garbett, inks by Trevor Scott, Dan Davis, Aaron Sowd, Sandra Hope & Oliver Nome, colors by Guy Major, and letters by John J. Hill (DC).

Fun, fast-paced with an essentially likeable protagonist, this series offers much of what I read superhero comics for. I don’t have any baggage when it comes to Stephanie Brown vs. Cass Cain, and that undoubtedly helped me to approach this series with an open mind, and while I am not deeply invested in the Batverse, I do read Birds of Prey and followed the final (?) Manhunter story set in Gotham. This book makes good use of Oracle and helps to place the new Batgirl in context. I am looking forward to the next collection.

Fallen Angel Omnibus Volume 0, written by Peter David with art by David Lopez (IDW).

I have been interested in this series, and took this new collection as a perfect entry point. I loved every page. Liandra is a fantastically complicated lead character, and one whose femininity and sexuality are used mostly for good narrative purposes and not treated as liabilities or for spectacle. Even pregnancy, normally a way to place limits on a female character in this kind of context, is used in a constructive way, furthering both the story and the development of Liandra’s character in meaningful ways. I don’t know much about where the series heads after this, but if the Reborn mini featuring Illyria is any indication, I am hopeful that it remained worthwhile.

Honorable and special mentions:

In my most recent column for PopMatters, I cite DMZ Volume 8: Hearts and Minds (Vertigo) and Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club (DC) as among the “best” of 2010 and I want to mention them again here for more or less the same reasons as I give in the other piece. I also mention Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour (Oni Press) in the column, but want to elaborate on that choice here.

What stands out for me about that series is how Bryan Lee O’Malley skillfully uses Scott’s circle of friends to make the guy seem worth rooting for. On his own, Scott is a pretty self-involved jerk, but the fact that all these other cool people want the best for him, want him to grow up, persuaded me to want that for him, too. I like the fact that the finale makes this part of the narrative clear, in that Scott needs to find a way to reward everyone’s trust in him, and also that it becomes a story about both Scott and Ramona getting over their pasts and trying to move forward together. Whether they stay together or not seems beside the point, another strength of the book. I do think that the final story could have been edited more judiciously for sharpness and length, and while Gideon’s ‘ghost in the machine’ trick provides a reason for why Scott and Ramona made the choices they made during the run of the narrative, it is also, at the end of the day, still a ghost in the machine.

I am also citing Marvel’s Strange Tales collection, and for more on that, read this. In addition, Kieron Gillen’s X-Men: S.W.O.R.D. – No Time to Breath (Marvel) collection was right there with Batgirl for the best superhero trade I read this year. Abigail Brand is a great character that, sadly, is now adrift given the cancellation of the series. Neil Gaiman’s Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (DC) story is a nicely turned work of meta-fiction, and Andy Kubert’s and Scott Williams’s art is appropriately classic for a reflection on what Batman means. Marvel has been releasing Brian Michael Bendis’s and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil run in big Ultimate Collections, and I mention Book 1 here mostly for Bendis’s early collaboration with David Mack, which is a smart and beautiful meditation and deconstruction of comics and superheroes.

Finally, I have two special mentions of books from 2007 that I read for the first time this year: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Mariner Books) and Adam Warren’s Empowered Volume 1 (Dark Horse), both of which have legions of fans and critical commentaries already available elsewhere, so I won’t go on about them here.

Monthly comics & uncollected serials (in no particular order).

Hellboy (Dark Horse). The mainline of the series, written by Mike Mignola with art by Duncan Fegredo and colors by Dave Stewart, continued the story began in “The Wild Hunt” with “The Storm”. This arc shows the series at its best, adapting folk tales and old mythologies to original characters and purposes, and featuring beautifully drawn figures and landscapes. Stewart’s color palette gives the art an other worldly, mythic feel, especially with how both vibrant and muted the choices are.

Aside from the major stories, in 2010 the title also featured two fabulous one-shots, “Hellboy in Mexico”, a collaboration with Richard Corben, and the crossover with Jill Thompson’s and Evan Dworkin’s Beasts of Burden, “Sacrifice”, both of which are funny, poignant, and beautifully rendered, and I read both more than once the first week I picked them up.

One thing I appreciate about Hellboy is how accessible I imagine it to be. I can pass the one-shots onto A knowing that she will understand the stories, and I suspect that you could pick up collections of the main arcs, read them, and enjoy the narratives without having the advantage of having read the rest of the series. The way that Mignola builds from established myths and legends is what makes this possible, I think.

B.P.R.D./B.P.R.D. – Hell on Earth (Dark Horse).

While this selection maybe predictable given the one above, even though Hellboy and B.P.R.D. come from the same root, they are very different books. Where I think that Hellboy is accessible, B.P.R.D. is far more comic book-y in the depth of its original storytelling, and rewards close reading more than casual. While the change in title this year to B.P.R.D. – Hell on Earth was initially puzzling, I also think that it highlights another difference between it and Hellboy: B.P.R.D. has always been more of the mundane world, while Hellboy seems to live in more of a mythic space. The title change signals an even tighter embedding of the B.P.R.D. with ‘real life’ (and, likewise, Dave Stewart’s colors are different in this title, more immediate feeling than in Hellboy, and Guy Davis draws the team on a much more human scale than is Hellboy).

What B.P.R.D. does share with Hellboy is an open narrative architecture, and this year that was shown in the Abe Sapien mini, “The Abyssal Plain”, another fascinating Cold War-era story from this universe.

Hotwire: Deep Cut (Radical Comics).

There’s one more issue to go in this mini-series, but as I mention here, this second outing for Warren Ellis’s and Steve Pugh’s Alice Hotwire, detective exorcist, has been fantastic, featuring sharp dialogue, quick action, and pointed cultural commentary about science and the state. The painted art style that Radical specializes in is not my favorite, but Pugh manages to make his figures appear more fluid or at least less stiff than is often the case with this form of the art. That and Alice looks so very much like the English chippy that some in the book mistake her for.

Fringe: Tales from the Fringe (Wildstorm).

I have the last issue in this mini-series waiting to be read, but I enjoyed the stories leading up to the final installment probably more than I should. As I write in my upcoming “Worlds in Panels”, these Fringe comics are exemplars of how licensed comics can be good, and mostly what makes these work is their commitment to telling stories that I imagine only fans of the show can really appreciate.

DEMO – VOLUME II (Vertigo).

The second outing in Brian Wood’s and Becky Cloonan’s series continues to stretch the idea of having ‘powers’ into the realm of everyday life, exploring both the idea of exceptional abilities in the context of ‘normal’ problems and dilemmas, #5, “Stranded”, for example, and also thinking about smaller scale quirks, #3, “Volume One Love Story”, for example, as ‘powers’. Cloonan and Wood work well together to tell their stories as much in images as words. Beautiful, thoughtful work.

Honorable and special mentions:

For reasons I spell out in the aforementioned and forthcoming column, I want to mention Gabriel Ba’s and Fabio Moon’s Daytripper (Vertigo), an excellent example of comics as a medium for short stories, but also one where I am still puzzling over the conclusion.

Michael Allred’s and Chris Roberson’s I, Zombie gets mention because it’s the best comic I share reading with A, and for the fun and stylish art. I’m citing the re-release of Matt Fraction’s and Gabriel Ba’s first Casanova (Marvel Icon) series for its frenetic style and self-conscious comic bookness that never tips over into preciousness. The first five issues of Black Widow (Marvel), written by Marjorie Liu and featuring art by Daniel Acuna, is stylish and densely plotted, and both of those creators are sorely missed now. G. Willow Wilson’s and M.K. Perker’s Air (Vertigo) ended this year, and will be missed for its sense of imagination and for Blythe’s unique character. I’m not sure I understand everything in Jonathan Hickman’s and Dustin Weaver’s S.H.I.E.LD. (Marvel) series, but every issue so far as featured gorgeous art and bizarre, inventive twists on history and historical figures. Greg Rucka’s and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown (Oni Press) took a long time to get through four issues, but the storytelling was strong enough to withstand the waits, and I loved seeing Southworth’s Portland. As I discuss here, the Girl Comics (Marvel) anthology series has much to recommend it, even as it raises questions about what room the major publishers make for women and girls in their sandboxes.

Finally, Marvel produced a pair of one-shots that I was happy to have pulled, Sean McKeever’s and Emma Rios’s Firestar story, and Marjorie Liu’s collaboration with Filipe Andrade, Nuno Alves, and Jay Leisten on an X-23 story that delved deeper into the character, and in more imaginative ways, than has the start of the ongoing series led by Laura. More on Firestar at PopMatters later this month.

All of the graphic novels and trade paperbacks I read in 2010.

All of the monthly comics I read in 2010.

Favorite TV of 2010

I am tabbing this post with “favorite”, instead of the usual “best”, as a way to foreground the necessarily subjective nature of these exercises, something that is even more obvious now that my TV watching has become even more selective than it used to be.

That being written, in no particular order, here are my favorite television shows or programs of the year just ended:

Fringe (Fox). This is the only scripted show on a major network that I am currently watching on anything like its real broadcast schedule. Starting with “Jacksonville”, the last espisode in February before a month-long hiatus, the series began to take off where it left off at the end of season one, exploring the consequences of Walter’s and William Bell’s past, and where Olivia fits into the interface between the two universes. In addition to the much lauded “Peter”, which is where the show picked up in April, I especially loved the two part finale to season two. With the gathering of all of cortexiphan subjects, the episode begins feeling very much like a good X-Men story, appropriately culminating with fire and tragic love, and the predictable, but necessary, swapping of Olivias.

That set up the so far excellent season three. I think that it is worth noting that this series currently has two of its leads, John Noble and Anna Torv, playing two versions of their characters, and doing so mostly through subtle gestures and small differences. The two Walters, especially, have more in common than either would likely want to admit.

I don’t know what to make of the move to Friday. On the one hand, that often is a vote of no confidence from a network. On the other hand, in the current viewing context, how much do these things matter anymore? I also will have to admit that I have watched plenty of Friday televsion – Homicide, The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica – and maybe Fox is right that the audience that Fringe already has will follow it over. The real question is whether that is enough for the nework executives who decide what gets renewed and what gets canceled.

Dollhouse (Fox). So, as of January of last year there were actually two network shows I was watching in ‘real time’, and the final three espisodes of this series remain among the most strange and interesting hours of television I saw all of this past year. The ability of the creators and actors to make you care about people you wanted to hate when the series started is one of the things I take away from the show’s regrettable, but expected, demise.

Treme (HBO).  This series seemed to divide its audience into two groups: those disappointed because it isn’t The Wire, and those who don’t care that it isn’t The Wire. I am in the latter group. I think I would have been happy to see David Simon et al approach New Orleans in the same way he did Baltimore, but I am more happy to see what they have actually done, which is to tell a character-driven story about daily life in a city where people have to struggle against all manner of odds: indifferent government, structures of race, class, and gender, ignorance of outsiders, love-hate from insiders. Treme isn’t the most thrilling show on TV, but it is strongly acted, politically pointed, and humanistic, in the best, and most critical, sense of that word.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO). I wrote about this series previously from a more critical angle, but I want to underscore my conclusion to that piece: this is a compelling period drama that is virtually unique in its scale and scope for series television. It is also masterfully acted, full of rich, complicated characters and performances. But one thing I particularly enjoy about the series is how the writers seem to revel in little period details, like Richard Harrow’s mask, that prompt you to think about how different and strange the world can be.

Mad Men (AMC). Like earlier seasons, this season of Mad Men follows a carefully crafted arc for Don Draper, and here you begin with Don seemingly trying to grow up and come to terms with the choices he has made, but end with his retreat back into fantasy-land. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to think about the loopy, whirlwind feel of the finale, but as time has passed, I think that it struck just the right tone to show Don’s transformation into, well, Roger Sterling (see “Waldorf Stories” for context). I continue to appreciate how the series writers will use well known events, such as the Muhammed Ali-Sonny Liston fight in “The Suitcase”, to ground their stories, and to develop characters by showing how they might have responded to those events.

Top Chef Masters (Bravo). While the second season of this series was made to feel a little more like typical reality fare, with blow ups and rivalries and scheming, in the end, I love this series for its focus on food, for the professionalism of the contestants, and for the forthrightness of the judging. I will also give a provisional nod to the current season of Top Chef, the “All Stars” or “second chances” edition, which has been interesting from the perspective of how the competitors have, or have not, changed and matured, and how they are choosing to approach their second shot.

The Amazing Race 17 (CBS). This is the only show that we watch as a family on a broadcast basis, and this most recent season was one of the best in awhile. None of the contestants were truly hateful, the expectations for what the competitors were expected to do on their own seemed to get raised (though still well-short of season one), and I think that Nat and Kat are worthy winners, both for being likeable and for being good racers who treated each other well.

On Netflix streaming, Anne-Marie and I have been catching up with The Office (NBC). We have resisted this series because of our respective, though different, relationships to the original (I love that series, while Anne-Marie finds it too uncomfortable to watch), and if it weren’t available for online viewing, we probably would still be deferring. I think what enables us to watch this series together, and not the British version, is that, at his core, Michael Scott (Steve Carell) wants to be a seen as a decent guy, while David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is utterly lacking in that kind of humanity.

We are currently into the latter part of season five, and the series seems to be past its prime, broadening some of its characters, notably Dwight, and finding it increasingly difficult to explain how Michael keeps his job (well, right now he doesn’t have it, but I know he will be getting it back). On the other hand, we’ve only be watching for four or five months and are almost finished with what we can watch at Netflix.

The one series I need to withhold comment on, but am sure would be on this list if we had been able to finish it, is season one of Nurse Jackie (Showtime). I wish I understood better what is made available online and what isn’t.

As someone who remembers watching the World Cup in a match here and a match there format on PBS in the 1980s, and also when soccer was broadcast in the U.S with commercials during games, I cannot express how much I appreciate where the event now is on the domestic sports landscape, or how cool it was to be in travelling on the east coast and have the 2010 cup as something to share with others. So, thanks to ESPN and ABC for making all of that possible.

As a final note, one of the cool things Anne-Marie and I have been able to do this year is re-watch certain shows with our daughter, A. Seeing, especially, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Lost with someone new and at a young age is a great experience, and has become part of the glue that binds us as a family. I also feel like we are giving A some space and freedom to express and cultivate her geeky, fannish side, something I know she isn’t always comfortable doing with all of her friends. With others, of course, she does, and for that reason we have been watching Chuck (NBC) on DVD, which is an amiable, if not very challenging show. Most importantly, she gets to share it with a couple of her better friends from school.