Illustration by Don Sparrow

TWO THOUSAND eight was a banner year for the comics industry. Aside from the giant leaps Hollywood made with financial and critical successes like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, some of the most magnificent work in comics was happening back in the pulp of the books that birthed them. Here is a look at the ten best comic book series published last year.


10. 1985
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team: Mark Millar (writer); Tommy Lee Edwards (Artist)

Why it’s great: This story is something of a departure from regular Marvel fare. It contains familiar heroes and villains, but in this story, the Marvel universe of 1985 begins to merge with our own, and only a quiet boy and his down-on-his-luck father realize what’s happening. Written and illustrated to emulate the golden glow of 80s kids’ films like ET and The Monster Squad, Millar’s series is a fun and relatable story where “the first line of defense against the villains is the kid who reads Marvel Comics,” a premise that manages to capture the feeling you’d have as a child recognizing The Vulture on your block. Overlooked in terms of sales, this period story was a real hidden gem in 2008, straddling the line between four-color adventure and real-life family drama, all told with a Wonder Years-like wistfulness from the point of view of the now-adult protagonist.

Art: Tommy Lee Edward’s photographic art style gives the story a rather eerie feel, as though you’re watching a film from 1985 that time forgot, grounding Millar’s larger-than-life characters with suburban detail and adult skepticism. The color is so vivid and nostalgic that it becomes a character in itself as Toby ventures into the flat world of the Marvel universe.

What’s not so good: Some of the action and characters are pretty dated to the summer of 1985, which makes the period element a little inaccessible. You have to be a pretty knowledgeable scholar of 80s comics to fully appreciate all the little nods, or sometimes even to know who people are.

Final Word: Each issue surpassed the previous one, right up until the bittersweet ending. Reading it, you couldn’t help but think what a cool movie this would have made.


9. Batman R.I.P.
Publisher: DC Comics
Creative Team: Grant Morrison (writer); and Tony Daniel (artist, among others)

Why it’s great: Known for its sprawling, mind-bending storytelling, Morrison’s Batman attempted the near-impossible task of validating all 69 years of Batman. Those goofy stories from the 50s with the giant set pieces? They all happened. Alfred’s original last name being Beagle, instead of Pennyworth? Also true. Ace, the Bat-hound? Well, you get the idea.

As Morrison worked in over a half century of tales, all of it was leading to his coup de grâce, Batman: RIP, wherein an underground criminal organization known only as “The Black Glove” set about destroying Bruce Wayne’s life in every conceivable way. The conclusion of this “final” Batman story made headlines around the world. Some readers maligned the convoluted storytelling (there is still debate among fans as to the identity of the leader of the Black Hand), the story, especially with its last reveal, actually lived up to Morrison’s own hyperbolic boast that “it’s possibly the most shocking Batman revelation in 70 years.”

What’s not so good: While Morrison’s stories were consistently good (and I admit, complicated) enough to require an immediate second reading, the inconsistent art on the title slightly hampered the its ability to achieve its potential. Tony Daniel’s work showed a good understanding of physical anatomy and architecture, but sometimes lacked dramatic punch (often literally). Even in the final issue of the RIP a key scene would have, say, Batman escaping from a coffin six feet underground, and Daniel chose to interpret this dramatic moment not by showing the action triumphantly, but rather by depicting the aftermath—a muddied Batman standing statically over the open grave.

Final Word: While the storyline may not in fact mean that Bruce Wayne, let alone the character of Batman is truly dead (are they ever?), with Morrison at the helm, I am willing to have some faith and read what happens next. Then read it again.


8. Fantastic Four
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team: Mark Millar (writer); Bryan Hitch (artist)

Why it’s great: The creative team that made Ultimates and Ultimates II consistent bestsellers reunites to chronicle the adventures of Marvel’s foremost family, and they do it in style. Large-scale, widescreen adventure with small interpersonal detail, this book both captures the feel and tone of the original Jack Kirby stories and adds a mature modern sensibility. As a relative newcomer to the Fantastic Four, this title has shown me just why Reed Richards is the smartest man in the Marvel universe, while also showing some of the hubris that explains his choosing “Mr. Fantastic” as his superhero name. (Seriously? Who does that?) We see what the vivacious Sue Storm sees in her egghead husband and also that her strength of character as Invisible Woman is what keeps Reed’s love for her strong in spite of her average intelligence. Johnny Storm is afforded more nuance than his filmic counterpart, and his combative interplay with his gruff “uncle” The Thing comes off as authentic rather than cloying.

This series also featured what was for me the most romantic moment in any comic of 2008: Reed builds a time machine to surprise Sue with dinner at a restaurant with a view of their very first meet-cute, which happened a decade earlier on the sidewalk outside.

Art: This is the real reason I gave this title a shot: Bryan Hitch is simply the best artist currently working in comics. His attention to detail and dynamic realism make this the prettiest book on the shelf. While I’m not completely sold on the soft edges of the panels (as opposed to outlining them in black, as is standard in comics, or having all the panels laid out on a black page, as was done in Ultimates) Hitch’s design sense, be it his tweaks to the costumes, complete redesign of the Fantasticar, or a miniature version of New York City on an alternate earth, is the sharpest and most modern in comics today.

What’s not so good: Not having this book tie into any of the other events in the Marvel universe detracts from the occurrences having as much potency as they could. These stories seem so self-contained that they can almost seem irrelevant to the Marvel universe as a whole. Also, Reed and Sue’s hyper-intelligent toddler is just creepy.

Final Word: This book hasn’t yet made me a life-long fan of these characters, but I am in for the duration—so long as it is these two creators who dictate the events in the Fantastic life of the world’s first imaginaut family.

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Illustration by Don Sparrow

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7. Daredevil
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team: Ed Brubaker (writer); Alex Maleev, Michael Lark (alternating artists)

Why it’s great: The only hero with worse luck than Peter Parker, Matt Murdock (Daredevil) gets everything in the book thrown at him. It’s impossible to look way from this beautifully-drawn train wreck: Daredevil combines Batman-like street justice, Law & Order-style courtroom drama, HBO-quality marital strife, all with real-life consequences. Each character is richly portrayed and consistent to their own nature, so when Matt’s life falls apart (again), the reactions of the supporting cast (particularly Matt’s long-suffering law partner Foggy Nelson) all ring true. Through the numerous tragedies and the handful of triumphs, Daredevil is a book where you feel it along with the hero and hope for relief in Hell’s Kitchen.

Art: Some of the best in comics. Michael Lark’s gritty city backdrops, complemented by his near total mastery of the ink brush make this book a real visual treat. Even the fill-in issues keep the consistent, earthy feel of New York City, so only very rarely do the visuals do anything but move the story along.

What’s not so good: Sometimes the characters popping up in Matt’s life—villains bent only on revenge—take away from the book’s real-life feel. When the story devolves into hero vs. villain drama, the lack of context lowers the stakes. Everything works best when the very real-world Daredevil’s failure has consequences for people other than only Matt and his inner circle.

Alex Maleev’s over-reliance on Photoshop-filtered photography for his backgrounds—or when he repeats panels at different resolutions rather than redrawing the character—can take one out of the story. Since Maleev can be such an excellent draftsman, that laziness is particularly disappointing.

Final Word: While part of me impatiently waits for Matt’s life to come together, or for him to at least catch the odd break, I’m in for whatever storm is about to be thrown his way. Not even the Trix cereal bunny has an existence this frustrating.


6. Justice Society of America
Publisher: DC Comics
Creative Team: Geoff Johns (writer); Dale Eaglesham, Alex Ross, Jerry Ordway (artists)

Why it’s great: Likely the best team book on the shelves at the moment. The mantra of DC’s original super-team is “the world needs better heroes,” and this book certainly serves as that sort of inspiration. A combination of the surviving original characters from World War II and legacy characters following in the footsteps (and codenames) of deceased heroes, the J.S.A. is both a high-powered domestic security force and a training ground for young crime-fighters. Tapping into a family dynamic lacking in many other team books, Justice Society is just as interesting when they’re fighting third generation Nazis as when they’re sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner.

A special treat over the past year has been the ongoing “Thy Kingdom Come” story, an unofficial sequel to the original, seminal Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. A “what-if?” story from 1996, Kingdom Come was an epic, industry-shaking event where the prophecies of the Book of Revelation appeared to be coming to pass. In this new series, Johns, working closely with original Kingdom architect Ross, manages to bring some of the best-liked characters from that storyline into current continuity via (convenient) rips in space and time. (Chief among these imports is the battle-scarred, emotionally wounded Superman from the alternate, cautionary Kingdom Come future.)

Art: Some really great drawing skill here. For most of the year, Dale Eaglesham handled art chores on this book, and gave the goings-on a very earthy feel, as he details the wrinkles in the faces and the seams in the clothing with a verisimilitude that sets this book apart from the more cosmic, flashy adventures of other books like X-Men and JLA. Eaglesham’s Canadian naturalism aside, we were also treated with some excellent fill-ins during the height of the Kingdom Come saga—including 80s icon Jerry Ordway (my all-time favorite artist) chronicling the adventures of Power Girl on an alternate Earth—and the previously-mentioned industry superstar Alex Ross illustrated a powerful lost chapter from the Kingdom Come Superman’s past. When the pinch-hitters are this good, it’s a pretty deep bench.

What’s not so good: While the book always has a very moral underpinning, with good Good Guys and bad Bad Guys, the bad guys can be awfully bad. One controversial scene had a super-speeding Neo-Nazi villain running directly through an innocent bystander at a county fair, depicted in what I found to be queasy-ing detail. Then again, these are Nazis we’re talking about.

Final Word: While I’m bummed that Johns will soon be leaving the title after a full decade at the helm, I’ve come to love these characters enough to see what happens to them next.


5. Captain America
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team: Ed Brubaker (writer); Steve Epting, Luke Ross (artists)

Why it’s great: It’s a testament to Ed Brubaker’s writing that this title has managed to stay at all readable—let alone as fascinating as it is month to month—considering that its titular character, Steve Rogers, has been dead for over a year. The book has chronicled Cap’s former youthful ally, Bucky, as he has both tried to grow into his role as the new Captain America and come to terms with his shameful past as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. Unlike any other series, this title reads more like an ongoing Bourne Identity series than traditional superhero yarn. Political intrigue, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and international espionage all lend it a compelling, cinematic atmosphere.

Art: Steve Epting’s noirish realism, coupled with the muted palette of colorist Frank D’Aramata (who is among the top colorists currently working in the industry) gives the book a very sophisticated, moody tone, totally unique to this series. The look is so consistent that it was three issues before I realized it had been Luke Ross, and not Epting, drawing the action—a steady standard of quality I greatly appreciate.

Final Word: With or without Steve Rogers, Captain America is one of the most compellingly-plotted books on the shelf. It will be interesting to watch Bucky Barnes find his identity as the new Captain, just as America wrestles with finding its place in the shifting global landscape.

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Illustration by Don Sparrow

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4. The Lone Ranger
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Creative Team: Brett Matthews (Writer); Sergio Cariello (Artist) John Cassaday (Cover Artist)

Why it’s great: The best thing about this update on the classic Western hero is the fact that it’s not an update at all: this is the very same Lone Ranger numerous generations grew up with. Rather than trying to engraft badass modern elements to the white-hatted, non-killing gunfighter, the book sticks closely to the “Lone Ranger Creed” established decades ago, making the storytelling the only “adult” elements in this book. The story has thus far wisely focused on the earliest origins of the character, helping new readers ease themselves into the action, just as John Reid does on his quest to bring justice (and not mere vengeance, a key point the book makes) for the slaying of his fellow Ranger/brother, Dan.

While played very straight most of the time, the book at time does give clever, knowing winks to the original source material. Whether it’s Tonto pretending to use the broken English of the TV series (because it’s what a group of strangers expect of him) or giving a quick flash of sheet music for the William Tell Overture in an action scene, these touches reward longtime fans without distracting the new readers upon whom they might be lost.

Art: Sergio Cariello’s rustic, ink-brush style is well suited for the hot, dusty backdrop of the old West, and he’s very adept at detailing both subtle facial expression and the specific architecture and “technology” of 1880s America. His horseback scenes (the bulk of most issues) are particularly inspiring, as any artist will tell you, horses are very difficult to render realistically. Cariello makes Silver and his rider look majestic on every page.

What’s not so good: While Cariello excels at the elements mentioned above, his backgrounds can be a little sparse. Also, the colorist tends to over-use Photoshop techniques somewhat incompatible with the flat, Cariello’s rugged rendering style. Little tricks like lens flares and outer glows look great on some books, but look jarringly out of place here (mostly in the earlier issues). Lastly, as much as I admire Cariello’s storytelling, the breathtaking covers by John Cassaday are sometimes so cool-looking, it feels a bit like a tease when the interiors are drawn by another artist.

Final Word: Though Western comics are a tough sell in the almost completely superhero-dominated North American market, this book, with its old-school morality alongside modern mystery storytelling, is one I often recommend to friends new to comics.


3. Green Lantern
Publisher: DC Comics
Creative Team: Geoff Johns (writer); Ivan Reis, Ethan Van Sciver (alternating artists)

Why it’s great: Geoff Johns has an uncanny ability to isolate what it is about a character that works, then disregard anything superfluous. This formula has worked wonders for him in the past, with characters whose backstories had gotten so over-complicated that the industry considered them “radioactive.” (Johns’ revitalizations of Hawkman and now fan-favorite heroine Power Girl a few years back are key examples.)

In the case of Hal Jordan, one of earth’s representatives in the intergalactic peace-keeping force known as the Green Lanterns, Johns has chosen to focus on the earliest elements from Hal Jordan’s fifty years of publishing to make the character viable, ignoring the navel-gazing wanderer of the 70s and 80s, the villainous turncoat 90s, and the ghostly early 00s. He restores Hal to the ultra-confident, honest-to-a-fault, swaggering test-pilot of his silver age origins and, in an era of angst-filled, self-doubting “heroes,” the throwback seems almost novel.

The biggest and best Green Lantern story of this past year was the long-awaited Sinestro Corps War, where the villainous Sinestro formed his own squad of murderous Yellow Lanterns, whose rings were fueled by the fear of others (whereas the Green Lantern rings are dependent on the willpower of the user). This storyline was one of the best-executed arcs in all of comics, and has no shortage of goosebump-inducing moments. The summer’s Green Lantern #25, for example, was likely the most satisfying issue of any series I read this year, where a de-powered Hal Jordan dukes it out bare-knuckled with his rogue former mentor and current worst enemy, Sinestro, while the citizens Hal’s city, (Los Angeles analog “Coast City”) all place green paper and green flashlights in their windows as a show of fearless support.

Art: Next to Bryan Hitch, Ivan Reis is the most realistic renderer in comics, and what he lacks in photo-realism he makes up for in dynamism. The illustration challenges he gets from Johns are amazingly difficult, pages upon pages of literally hundreds of characters, all of whom are different alien races (something Reis has a bit of fun with—in the aforementioned issue #25, I spotted Predator, E.T, and even ALF, for crying out loud!). Reis’ brilliant, clean drawing aside, even the stories between long arcs have boasted excellent artwork. Ethan Van Sciver’s hyper-detailed artwork and design sense is always a welcome treat, and even the “fill-in” artists like Mike McKone are good enough in their own right to be headliners in their own regular titles.

What’s not so good: Despite how good the (Yellow) Sinestro Corps and more recent Red Lantern storylines have been, the revelation that there are seven different shades of Lanterns (one for each color of the ROYGBIV spectrum) diminishes the coolness of the original Green Lantern concept. I trust Johns’ storytelling ability, but worry that all these different Corps may water down the mythology a tad.

Final Word: With the first thirty issues having been some of the most consistently entertaining reading of the past few years—Johns’ possession of excellent long-range planning abilities—Green Lantern will remain a book I highly recommend to readers of all ages. In the words of the Green Lantern oath, “Let those who worship evil’s might—beware [his] power, Green Lantern’s light.”


2. Action Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Creative Team: Geoff Johns (writer); Gary Frank (artist)

Why it’s great: Superman has a reputation (deserved or not) of being a difficult character to write, his innate goodness and near omnipotence often being cited as obstacles to relevant, engaging stories. In this title, however, Geoff Johns (yeah, he’s on this list a lot!) has managed to craft some worthy additions to the pantheon of classic Superman stories. He’s done it not by “updating” Superman or making him more “badass,” but by doing the opposite. Johns’ stories restore Superman to the noblest, most fundamental facets of his character. The two biggest storylines of the year were the Legion crossover (The Legion of Superheroes being yet another previously-untouchable franchise due to their countless convoluted reboots) and the Brainiac storyline it spun into.

Johns’ Superman is confident and powerful but deeply human. In this storyline we see that while Superman’s great natural abilities come from the stars, his greatest “power” is his unerring morality, the fruit of the humble Midwestern values instilled by a simple Kansas farmer.

Art: Briton Gary Frank’s naturalistic, svelte Superman blends old-school Curt Swan simplicity with the personality (and visage) of the screen’s greatest Superman, Christopher Reeve. Frank’s clean lines and emotive facial expressions make this book a real treat to take in each month. Every character in the Superman mythology is pitch-perfect. From the unpretentious, fresh-faced Lois Lane to the gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White, the subtle physicality is excellently defined. Frank’s little touches, like Clark’s introverted body language (complete with numerous pushes of his Buddy Holly lenses up the bridge of his nose) help sell the idea that anyone, even a pen full of investigative reporters, would believe Superman is a distinct entity from Kent. Simply put, this is the best art in a Superman comic since Jerry Ordway stopped drawing him in the early nineties.

What’s not so good: The “New Krypton” arc that spun out of the Brainiac saga (wherein a hundred thousand Kryptonians long believed dead were found alive as captives aboard Brainiac’s ship) went on too long, and had more lasting implications for Supergirl than it did for Superman, despite it mostly taking place in the Superman titles. Worst of all, it spoiled the tragic “Last Son of Krypton” thing integral to the mythology. It’s tough to be in wonder of Superman’s power when there are literally thousands of beings with identical abilities (though it does underscore the fact that something more than raw power makes Superman who he is).

Final Word: With Johns and Frank staying on Superman to re-tell his origin (as Johns did masterfully this year on Green Lantern) for a seven-issue stretch, the current renaissance of the Man of Steel will definitely be worth reading for the foreseeable future. Comics’ oldest title (870 issues!) is still the flagship for canonical Superman stories.

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Illustration by Don Sparrow

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1. All-Star Superman
Publisher: DC Comics
Creative Team: Grant Morrison (writer); Frank Quitely (artist)

Why it’s great: It’s difficult to find new things to say about a book already so heaped with praise (its run has already been awarded multiple Eisners, the comic industry equivalent of Oscars). But with each new edition of this twelve-issue run, you truly felt as though you were witnessing a real event. Oddly enough, it would take two Scotsmen to chronicle the ultimate American pulp icon (though as a Canadian, it is my duty to point out that despite his credo of championing “The American Way” Superman is only half-American, as co-creator Joe Shuster is Toronto-born) in a way that is at once futuristic and strangely nostalgic. Free from the bounds of current publishing continuity (DC’s All-Star line is a separate imprint from the rest of its monthlies), All-Star Superman, like Morrison’s Batman, manages to incorporate the best of all seven decades of publishing, keeping what “works” (even when it’s goofy 1950’s ideas like Sun-Eaters) and jettisoning what doesn’t.

This non-canon storyline was Morrison’s attempt to pack everything he loves about the character into his fictional “final” Superman tale. Our story begins with Superman being told he’s dying, and follows this noblest of heroes as he completes his Herculean “Twelve Labors” before his time runs out. The ticking clock’s desperation gives all of the fun a sad sort of poignancy. Half the pleasure of this book is noticing the details in the background, like the times when Clark Kent’s “bumbling” continually saves the lives of the annoyed people around him, or when the alopecia-stricken Lex Luthor accidentally wipes his own eyebrow off. Some of the material is pretty inside—you’d need a degree in comicology to fully appreciate all the detail Morrison and Quitely lovingly render—but the story still works even on the simplest levels. Faced with certain death, Superman approaches life with boundless optimism and confidence, and inspires it in those around him, from the suicidal Goth teen in issue #10 to Lex Luthor, who in issue #12 sees the world through Superman’s eyes for one brief shining moment. Luthor is so moved by the heartbreaking revelation that he begins speaking in haiku. (Seriously).

Superman’s supporting cast is also handled well, each figure integral to the mythology getting at least one “spotlight” issue. In the tradition of the wacky 1960’s Jimmy Olsen stories, issue #4 thrusts Jimmy into action; he must stop a Bizarro-virus-infected Superman from destroying the city with negativity. Lois Lane appears throughout, but is never better used than in her birthday story from issue #3, where Superman gives her superpowers for a day, resulting in, among other things, the single most moving kiss between the two in 70 years of stories—on the sands of the moon. (Seriously, read it, you’ll melt).

Even with the morbid clock ticking through the story, fans of Morrison’s work will recognize the backdoor to the story he’s given us (as well as Superman). Even as Superman’s body begins to disintegrate, the form he ultimately takes is recognizable to true Superman geeks as the Superman from Morrison’s 1998 head-scratcher, DC One Million. So while Lois may be weeping at the end of this tale, we know their happily ever after will arrive, albeit in the 853rd century.

Art: Frank Quitely is admittedly an acquired taste, with his elongated faces and cartoony body shapes, but this quirkiness is not only a virtue to a story this big and colorful, but perhaps a necessity. His distinctly European linework and mastery of textures never make the widescreen action too grounded, nor let it ever become too fantastic. Quitely’s Lois Lane also walks a fine line; he drew her beautiful enough for us to recognize why our spit-curled demigod would choose her, but not so glamorous that we don’t “buy” her as a hard-nosed career woman.

What’s not so good: Really, everything’s pretty amazing here, but if I had to find something to complain about, I’d say the Bizarro storyline (where Superman meets the self-absorbed poet Zibarro) ate up one too many issues that could have been better spent exploring elsewhere. Visually, the book suffered, however slightly, from the lack of an inker, as All-Star applied a still new(ish) technique called “digital inking” (Photoshop used directly on the pencils to darken them to full blacks, in place of an inker going over the pencils with pens and brushes). But the worst sin this book committed, though, was its irregular schedule, taking a full two years to complete 12 issues (roughly half the pace of most other comics). Still, you only hated waiting for it because you liked the previous issue so much.

Final Word: How much did I love this comic? Well, every month it came out, I bought one copy for myself, and an extra copy I would buy to give to friends, because I so wanted the enjoyment from this book to be shared with other people. (Since it’s been collected in trade paperback, I’ve really stepped up my campaign). This was an extremely rare comic book, one that stretched beyond the monthly scope of storytelling, boiled Superman down to his most essential elements, and made a story anyone could read. Whether you’re a Superman lifer (like me) or completely new to the character, this was a story you could enjoy equally in either instance. If all comics were this good, the medium would garner a lot more respect than it currently enjoys. All-Star Superman is the kind of story that showed the entire industry just how interesting it could be, and it is the standard by which Superhero comics will be judged, I suspect, for years to come.


Don Sparrow is a freelance writer and illustrator in Saskatchewan.

 
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