So I’ve never written about comics, but lately I’ve become a fairly regular reader. And this year I’ve found to be one of the strongest years I can remember. Here’s an unranked round-up of some of my favorites that I look forward to. I cannot say I read everything out there — you’ll notice no DC books because I don’t read those — and I sort of pick and choose based on what others are talking about. So really, this is not a comprehensive Best of 2012 list. It’s just a bit of a recommendation of things to try out.
HAWKEYE | Matt Fraction (writer), David Aja, Javier Pulido, Matt Hollingsworth (artists) | (Marvel)
I’ll admit it, for years Hawkeye has been my Aquaman. That is, I’ve found the character dumb both in concept and look: He’s a third tier character — an archer, with no super powers, dressed all in purple, and he’s kind of a dick. Following the big breakout role in this summer’s megahit The Avengers, I still was not swayed, mostly due to Jeremy Renner’s brooding assassin portrayal. That seems to be the angle Marvel has mostly been going in the last year too, eschewing the funky mask and skirt-like purple uniform, for a sleeker, black-with-purple accents spy look, that is at least functional looking. But beyond the costume, (because, really, who cares?), as portrayed in the various Avengers books, Clint Barton is still that hard-nosed assassin type, but with the occasional burst of smart-allecky jokes. Yeesh.
So for me to say that a Hawkeye comic is probably the series I most look forward to each month is a huge deal. But such is the case with this series by Matt Fraction and David Aja. This pair not only have revamped the character with the very simple, continuity-lite “This is what Hawkeye does when he’s not being an Avenger” concept and one-and-done single-issue stories, but with meticulously rendered artwork that has regularly blown my mind.
This series is a clinic in compressed and detailed storytelling, crafting inventive page layouts from tiny, design-heavy panels. Aja’s artwork is so impressive while also being incredibly clean, owing much to the 1960s look. It’s very mod, but not retro. And coupled with Matt Hollingsworth’s flat coloring style and perfectly complimentary color palette — lots of muted purples and yellows and burnt reds — this book is a marvel to look at, and especially so on the iPad, where those colors just sing.
Fraction’s writing here is also truly at its best, showing how single repeated jokes can pay off down the line. And Fraction has also stumbled across one of the best will-they-or-wont-they buddy relationships in comics between Clint Barton and Kate Bishop — a younger female Hawkeye in training and the moral compass of the story — by giving them funny banter and interplay.
But really, the book is awesome because it takes a character that I’ve never shown much of a need for, and showing why I should care by boiling it down the fact that Clint Barton cannot help but be a hero, even on his days off. “Hawkguy” keeps trying to save his neighbors and takes a beating at his own expense to do the right thing. That’s all you can hope for in a comic book. This series has only just started, but I cannot wait to see where it goes and how the team tells it.
FATALE | Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist) | (Image)
This year may be remembered as the year of Image Comics, as the creator-owned company unleashed a ton of stellar books (Saga, Fatale, Manhattan Projects, Mind the Gap), and finds itself positioned to be the place for writers and artists both looking to stretch and reinvent themselves in a non-superhero world. Perhaps the best among them in 2012 was a new offering from the always great creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I’ve been a fan of Brubaker’s mainstream work on Captain America, Iron Fist, and Daredevil. But it’s this pair’s work together that has truly been impressive — from Sleeper to Criminal to Incognito.
In some ways Fatale doesn’t shift too much away from what one might expect, it’s based in pulpy noir, gritty crime, and shady characters who do wrong even when trying to do right. But if Criminal was more straight up crime, and Incognito added in pulpy superheroes, then Fatale is Brubaker’s horror book. The story is actually simultaneously-told in several time periods, shifting from modern times to the past seamlessly, building a world around men drawn to a beautiful woman, who seems to have both powers to live forever and sway the hearts of men with a single glance.
Fatale can be gory and creepy with creatures and cults and magic, but in the hands of Phillips’ art, it remains grounded in the world and style that he and Brubaker have mastered. Originally intended as a mini-series, I’m super excited that this story is now listed as an ongoing, meaning I can look forward to this book each month for the foreseeable future.
SAGA | Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Fiona Staples (artist) | (Image)
Brian K. Vaughan is no stranger to the high concept: He’s told stories of teenagers on the lam from their supervillain parents in Runaways; he’s explored what happens when a man with the ability to talk to machines runs for mayor of New York in Ex Machina; and, in Y: The Last Man he’s shown us a post-apocalyptic tale where every male on the planet dies except for one immature 20-something man and his monkey and must somehow navigate this new woman-run world and stay alive. Got all that?
Vaughan returned to comics in a big ambitious way this year with one of the craziest and loveliest books out there. Saga is a science fiction space opera-meets-family drama centered around a couple of military deserters on opposite sides of a war with no end in sight. Oh yeah, and their brand new daughter, who serves as the narrator and entry point of view for the story.
Coupled with Fiona Staples’ impossibly beautiful all-digital artwork and layout design work this book has the look and feel of hand-sketched drawings but heightened with robust coloring made to look like high-end cell animation and dreamy paintings. And it’s full of insane character designs and creatures — from monkey mechanics, gorgeous female assassins with spider legs and regal robots with TV screen heads.
Yet at its heart, Saga is a love story about a family just trying to get by and survive this war-torn universe together.
FANTASTIC FOUR, FF | Matt Fraction (writer), Mark Bagley, Mike Allred (artists) | (Marvel)
Up until Jonathan Hickman’s incredible three-year story on Fantastic Four and FF, I had never been a fan or reader of Fantastic Four. Despite its history as the first Silver Age superhero comic that launched the Marvel Universe and made household names of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I just could not be bothered to care much about the characters. But in the hands of Hickman, the whole “superhero family” concept finally clicked with me thanks to layered long-game plotting and character moments that felt true.
Now that that series has wrapped, Marvel has relaunched both F4 and FF as part of its Marvel Now initiative, that, while not a reboot, has reinvigorated the entire line with top tier writers and artists getting shuffled off older books and onto new books they had never written, and in turn getting to define and redefine the various series going forward. In one of the most exciting and best pairings of creators and characters, Matt Fraction being put on the two sister books is an inspired one.
Fraction is known for his off-the-wall ideas and sharp wit, and as his run on Iron Man has shown, great at longterm planning. But paired with a pro’s pros like Mark Bagley (on F4) and the pop art artist Mike Allred (on FF), has taken both the writer and the books up to the next level. Both books feel of the same piece, but FF is truly exceptional thanks the Allred’s eye-catching design layouts and clean lines and his wife Laura Allred’s popout coloring. While only two issues of each have dropped so far in 2012, this story is going to be one to keep an eye out for in the next year.
MANHATTAN PROJECTS | Jonathan Hickman (writer), Nick Pitarra & Cris Peters (artists) | (Image)
After doing a month-long deep dive into Jonathan Hickman’s inventive and superbly plotted Fantastic Four and FF runs, I came to this new creator-owned series hoping for more of the same world building and pseudoscience. Manhattan Projects does not disappoint. It’s a series bursting with demented energy and mind-blowing ideas. Set in a re-imagined “real world” during and around the end of World War II, this series reveals that the true Manhattan Project building the Atomic Bomb that ends the War was just a front and only the tip of the fringe bleeding edge science the team was up to.
With characters such as Robert Oppenheimer’s evil twin, a diabolical Einstein from an alternate universe, and an re-animated artificial intelligence FDR, this series is both super dark and truly bananas. But it’s also a total blast with lots of “what the f—?” moments.
DAREDEVIL | Mark Waid (writer), Marcos Martin, Paulo Riviera and Chris Samnee et al (artists) | (Marvel)
Much in the way Hawkeye is using it’s modernist art style to reinvigorate the character, Mark Waid and company have done the same for Daredevil for the last two years. Daredevil was the breakout hit of 2011, thanks to inventive artwork and sunnier characterization after the many years under the pen of Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker. I loved the runs by Bendis and Brubaker in particular, with it’s grim crime-focused storytelling, but after those runs, where could you possibly go? The only direction was a clean sweep, which is what Waid has been doing. The series still has it’s dark broodier moments — it IS Daredevil after all. But this book, even in year two, continues to be a delightful must-read by going to unexpected places.
I read quite a few other books this year, some good, some just because I had nothing else to do. Here are a few more worthy of a name drop:
— WINTER SOLDIER | Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Michael Lark | (Marvel)
A super cool S.H.I.E.L.D espionage thriller that continues where Brubaker left off in Captain America. Great stories teaming-up Winter Soldier and Black Widow that bring lots of twists and turns that leave you guessing.
— AMAZING SPIDER-MAN | Dan Slott, Humberto Ramos, et al | (Marvel)
Returning to the big fun and troubled exploits of Peter Parker, Slott has been building a long-gestating 100-issue story arc that is about to culminate with #700 and promptly blow the internet in half next week. Can’t wait to see what happens.
— WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN | Jason Aaron, Nick Bradshaw, Chris Bachalo, et al. | (Marvel)
If you had told me the bearded biker guy (and Kansas City resident) who wrote the gritty series Scalped was writing the best and wackiest X-Men book out there I’d be shocked. But sure enough, this book, which features some oddball characters and cartoony artwork, is just a load of fun, but a lot of heart.
— UNCANNY X-FORCE | Rick Remender, various artists | (Marvel)
One of the darkest, most bloody superhero comics out there, but also one of the thoughtful books full of big ideas that ponder the cycle of violence that begets more violence, and to what end? Remender just brought this epic run home with the series’ final issue. But go back and read it again from the beginning. It might reveal just how heavily-plotted it was from the get-go.