Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Atoll Comics

My Ten On-going Titles

Due to poverty and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be super-selective about which superhero comics I read. Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that I can afford to read 10 ongoing titles. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

The following are, in no particular order, the ten survivors:

Batman: I love me some Batman. For my money, Batman is one of the most interesting and well developed characters in cape comics and as a result I will almost certainly always read at least one Batman book. Batman, by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, is easily the best Batman title included in DC’s new 52 launch (since the other Batman titles are nigh unreadable). It is also really good comics, with solid and engaging writing, a compelling plot, and a consistent and enjoyable visual style (superhero-cartoonishness coupled with a heavily shadowed palette). Basically this one is on the list because it’s a Batman book with a fantastic creative team. It’s a no brainer.

Wonder Woman: When I set about cutting my comics consumption down to ten titles, I did not expect Wonder Woman to be among them. Wonder Woman, as a character, often feels kind of contrived to me… she is a lady superhero made to occupy a niche for a lady superhero1. She has an iconic look, and a healthy place in the pop-culture zeitgeist, but often seems to lack a complete sense of person. Even when she has been written properly as a person, there is generally this weirdly disjointed attempt to get her to live in the DC superhero universe. I’ve always found it distracting. But the new Wonder Woman book, written by Brian Azzarello and drawn mainly by Cliff Chiang, is really good. I think the key to my enjoyment of the book is that they create this remixed greek mythological world, where the concept of a super powered Amazonian princess feels organic instead of an excuse to have a female character. Add to this smart writing and great artwork and Wonder Woman is a book in my top ten.

The Flash: This is a really pretty book. Of the books DC is currently offering, I think Flash could make a case for best looking: beautiful pencils, colours that pop, and a sense of design/layout that amplifies the story and really sells the Flash’s speed powers (which strikes me as a challenging thing to do). This all makes sense since the writers of Flash, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, are the penciller and colourist respectively. The actual writing is fine too (sort of based on the idea of things that challenge a guy who can move really quickly with a veneer of sci-fi) but this takes backseat to the beautiful artwork. This book makes the list for the art.

Batwoman: If Flash isn’t the best looking book at DC, I’d wager Batwoman is. J H Williams III is an artistic juggernaut who pretty much has free artistic rein on the book (he co-scripts it with W. Hademan Blackman as well as pencils every second arch). When he is drawing the book it’s like nothing else: elaborate layouts, different artistic styles and motifs for different characters and situations, and brilliant visual storytelling. It’s breathtaking. That said, the writing isn’t quite at the same level as the art and can be confusing and a bit tone deaf at times.2 Still, worth it just for the sweet sweet artwork.

Daredevil: This might be the cleverest book published by Marvel or DC. From the way blindness is constantly integrated into the plot (without ever seeming contrived), to the dialogue and humour, to the visual design and aesthetic of the book…. It’s just clever. And fun while still being challenging and maintaining a sense of danger and consequences.  Writer Mark Waid and main artist3 Paolo Rivera are just churning out a superlative comic. If you like superhero comics this one is pretty much a must.

The Invincible Ironman: Tony Stark is a pretty compelling dude. He is simultaneously gifted and deeply flawed; a normal human and a prosthetically enhanced superhero; and a genuinely good person who is kind of a dick. In Invincible Ironman you get a fully realized Tony Stark trying to invent a better world in the face of financial ruin, organized opposition, and his own inherent weaknesses. It’s quintessentially what I want from an Ironman comic. It also doesn’t hurt that the thematic core of Ironman as a character is about relating to technology which is pretty central to modern life. I’m a huge fan of the book’s writer Matt Fraction who just finds the right narrative tone for this book and Tony Stark (and genrally just kills it). Add to that a consistent art team of Salvador Larroca and Frank D’Armata, who, despite some distracting ticks4, render the hell out of fighting robot suits and technology. Great character, great story, great creators.

Winter Soldier: This one is a case of creative consistency. Winter soldier, aka Bucky Barnes, aka temporary-replacement-Captain America, has had a story arch in progress since I started reading comics again as an adult. I’m pretty invested in the character and the events surrounding him (he is clandestinely trying to stop the sins of his past from starting a world war) and since Captain America is currently fighting dream-Hydra (or something) this book also fills my Captain America fix (which is the book it spun out of).5 Add to this the very talented creative team of writer Ed Brubaker (who has been writing this character for basically a decade), penciller Butch Guice, and colourist Bettie Breitweiser  you get this terrific (and consistent!) noir espionage thriller as viewed through a snowstorm of whitenoise in a comic book universe… which is pretty damn cool.

Thunderbolts: This is a fun book with great characters. Basically, it’s the misadventures and character studies of old school thunderbolts and a lovable collection of D-list Marvel. I once worried that T-bolts would be a super-rapey-angst book with its team-of-villains premise. However, while the title villains occasionally do legitimately awful things, the book is charming, funny and oddly cute. Jeff Parker and Kevin Walker do a great job writing and drawing (respectively). Basically, Thunderbolts is a great book that is light and fun, but with enough edge to stay engaging.

Fantastic Four/FF: Fantastic Four/FF is the best Science Fiction book being published by the Big Two.6 While it has all of the superheroics and family-centric dynamics that have always been integral to the Fantastic Four, under writer Jonathon Hickman it has also become a very classic sci-fi book. In amongst the stories of punching and Earth-Shattering-Dangers there are tales of a man who lives millennia, a monster who is a man for only one day a year, an interdimensional council of world builders, alien cultures, lost civilizations, and time travel. And all of this is built into a complex and engaging central plotline that keeps the whole thing moving. It’s the best of the fantastic four and the best of the pulp Science Fiction that spawned them.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Spider-Man is another character that has a special nostalgia-powered niche in my heart. It’ll be a sad day when I can’t find a Spider-Man book worth reading. Luckily, Ultimate Spider-Man is a solid title: with over 100 issues written by the same writer (Brian Michael Bendis) and drawn by only a handful of excellent artists7 (with simpatico styles) it is both very good and shockingly consistent. Consistent to the point that a change in title character (they killed off Peter Parker, and replaced him with new Spider-Man Miles Morales) has done nothing to damper my enthusiasm for the book. So Ultimate Spider-Man makes my list for being the best ongoing Spider-Man title.8

1: I like female characters in my comics, and wish there were more good ones. I also which there were more good people of colour and queer characters in comics. The issue is that many of these characters seem to exist due to editorial mandates or a perceived need for such characters (which there is!) without a concurrent commitment to making these characters complete people. Sort of a “look a super lady” level characterization, instead of “hey check out this awesome character, who happens to be a lady”. I think it’s a shame this is the level of portrayal we generally get: Carol Danvers often gets pigeon-holed as a generic female avenger, instead of the awesome character with a great back story and character beats (fighter jet pilot gets super powers from aliens, has issues with alcohol and control, has a reason to not be down with mutants… etc) we would have if she were a dude. It’s like in real life: my female friends aren’t my friends because they are female, but because they are great people. This is what should be reflected in comics.
2: There was a sequence that had a liaison between the protagonist and her love interest rendered in soft artistic tones alternating with the violent stabbing of a supporting female character that had sexual overtones. It was an uncomfortable choice? Maybe purposefully so, but it was way too rapey for my tastes.
3: I say “main” artist since there is a lot of rotation on this book. While Paolo Rivera has done the most issues, a pretty talented bunch including Marcos Martin and Chris Samnee have also filled in. To a certain extent it’s great: everyone on the book is super-talented. But I like consistent visual styles in books… and I don’t think artists are interchangeable picture machines. It devalues the artist and can hurt the tone of the book. It can also kill my interest in a book… a recent Mighty Thor arch had a fill in artist for the final issue and it just wasn’t very good and destroyed what should have been a rewarding pay off. Rotating artists to increase publication speed also makes comics budgeting hard to do and may eventually force me to cut further titles.
4: Human faces are often obviously celebrity photoreferenced, and by my count both Reed Richards and Captain America both have had cases of Brad-Pitt-face during this book…
5: Captain America may not be a main character in the book, but as an unseen participant his influence is everywhere. I feel Captain America (Steve Rogers) works best as an inspiration engine, and the niftiest thing about him as a character is his ability to affect other characters. Winter Soldier is essentially his golden age protégé trying to live up to the ideals of Cap (who is in turn a kind of personification of “American” ideals…) I think it’s a niftier dynamic than following the adventures of Steve Rogers himself.
6: Calling Fantastic Four and FF one book is kind of a copout, but honestly the books are so intertwined that reading only one of the two titles would be a disservice. If you read one, both are pretty much mandatory. Also: it gives me an excuse to read an extra comic every month.
7: In about ten years of Ultimate Spider-Man comics the only artists have been: Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, Sara Pitchelli, and now David Marquez.
8: I miss Brand New Day guys, I really do. Those were quintessential Spider-Man stories, light on continuity, that were hard-hitting and significant. There was a proper supporting cast of people I gave half a damn about and new characters that were interesting. Amazing Spider-Man, under Dan Slott, is not a comic book for me: for one thing it’s heavy on trying to reclaim 90’s Spider-Man continuity which, as a dude who didn’t read comics in the 90’s, is pretty frustrating.9
9: Who is the Spider Queen? Why do I care about this? Why is there a furry green geneticist? Is he related to Agent Brand? Who is this fan service for?!  

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