High Five! Comics

Archive for the ‘20 (Or So) Best Comics of the Decade’ Category

Remember in ninth grade, when you were totally into that girl in your Honors English class? She was the only reason you ever feigned interest in the Bouncing Souls and Perks of Being a Wallflower. And then, one day she calls you and is all, “Hey, meet me at the Chinatown Express. We totally need to talk.” Oh, god. Man, you needed to get down there. There she is. In the corner with her $1 side of beef broccoli (beef removed in a poor attempt at vegetarianism) and a fortune cookie. This is it. Oh man oh man oh man. “Hey, there, Girl-in-your-ninth-grade-Honors-English-class, what’s up?”

“I just haaaave to tell somebody! I just lost my virginity to the forward on the varsity soccer team!”

That’s Identity Crisis.

But, what was it exactly that made this book so heartbreaking?

In the 1990s the comic industry began delving deeper and deeper in to events. These events were more geared at getting the readers’ money than actual substance. Investors were buying up anything and everything they could get their hands on, and story arcs like Death of Superman or Spider-Man’s Clone Saga were written to shock rather than move readers, and the characters devolved to cheap shots and gimmicks. By and large comics were gussied up with trading cards, black Mylar bags, holographic covers, and many promises of “out with the old, in with the new”.

Right around 2000 (how appropriate for this countdown), things seemed to change. Marvel produced both Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man and Morrison’s New X-Men while DC released Kevin Smith’s run on Green Arrow. This seemed to mark a change in the status quo and comics began to actually focus on who characters were. In other words, the Big Two opted for quality over quantity. Published in 2004, Identity Crisis epitomized this push towards character development.

As a warning, there will be many major spoilers from here on out.

Before Identity Crisis, if I were to ask a comics novice who Sue Dibny, Jean Loring, Jack Drake, Digger Harkness, or Ronnie Raymond was, the response would probably have been a blank stare. Fortunately, DC had been experimenting with thriller novelist Brad Meltzer, who followed up Kevin Smith on Green Arrow. Pleased with the results, they gave him a seven issue mini-series called Identity Crisis. The premise? Apparently to make you cry.

The Silver Age had established how much Ralph (and the rest of the DCU) loved Sue Dibny. A lot of Batman stories involving Tim Drake talk about how he is the only Robin to have ever had a parent to go home to. Former Flash Rogue Digger Harkness (aka: Captain Boomerang) has decided it’s time to pass the torch to his estranged son, Owen Mercer. Jean Loring and Ray Palmer are trying their best to fix their ridiculously rocky relationship. Brad Meltzer does an amazing job setting you up to feel for all of these pairings before taking each and every one of them out in the most gut-wrenching ways possible. Not to be out-done, Rags Morales managed to capture every ounce of heartache in exquisite fashion. Morales’ depiction of Ronnie Raymond’s final moments alone were enough to send me to my cupboard for a hit of Jack Daniels.

Toss in a couple abominable revelations about Doctor Light, Sue Dibny, Batman, the Justice League, and the fact that Identity Crisis was one of the most referenced works in 52 (arguably the turning point in current DC continuity) and you will see why Identity Crisis made #1 on our list. Perhaps Joss Whedon put it best in his introduction for the trade: “Even if you know what happens, you have to live through it. That’s the feeling this book gives you — of living with these people through their pain and triumph and madness, and did I mention the pain? You will come through it with a new understanding of the world before you. You will see.”

There you have it, folks. Identity Crisis was High Five! Comics’ favorite comic of last decade. It wasn’t the most important comic, nor did it revolutionize the industry. We picked Identity Crisis because it made us cry. There were no gimmicks. There were no cheap shots. Just a cast of characters transformed from b-listers to people we genuinely cared about. The last decade saw an abundance of high-quality and entertaining work. Yet, at the end of the day it wasn’t the powers, or the costumes, or the action that we loved most. Identity Crisis was a story about fragile humans, ripped from their tough-guy lifestyle, and doing the best they can to cope with a harsh world.

-Rob

“Thanks to things like ‘Buffy’ and ‘The Matrix’ the entire mainstream is pumped and primed to consume superhero stories.”

-Grant Morrison, 2001

There were two versions of X-Men in the 90s. An awesome cartoon that instilled a love of Wolverine and Gambit to the boys and girls of America, and all of the pointless crap that was written in the actual comic books. 1990s X-books were riddled with plots too convoluted to follow, art too ridiculous to swallow, and a general atmosphere of despair. At some point the editorial staff at Marvel must have said, “Our most relevant title is too fun, exciting, and smart with its balance of action and politics. Let’s make the X-Men an exhausting and boring look at dystopia as our heroes stare endlessly down the barrel of their own inevitable destruction.” Meeting adjourned, a decade of horrible comics begun, everybody shake hands and go home. If you were an angst-y 12 year old boy that might have seemed cool for 30 seconds, but after 10 years the X-Men had lost any relevance.

Then in 1999 Marvel got something right: they licensed the X-Men to 20th Century Fox and started a renaissance of good comic movies. While you and I bought tickets and pop-corn, Grant Morrison used keen insight to evaluate exactly what made the movie so good. In 2001 he wrote a letter to Marvel posing the question: What if we made the X-Men fun to read again? Thank God Joe Quesada agreed. The ensuing 40 issues were the perfect kick off to the 2000s by reintroducing everything that had made the X-Men so great in the late 70s and early 80s. Pulling opulence from subtlety, Frank Quitely eschewed the extravagance of 90s art by making characters look like real people again and condensed his edginess to a set of totally bad-ass costumes. Grant countered this by giving his characters witty dialog that centered on character relations endowed with humanity rather than tragedy endowed with crap.

Remarkably – and with some risk – Morrison showed no real ingenuity in his plot. E is for Extinction possessed every basic plot point of any X-title to date. We see a madman character bent on destroying the mutants with an army of sentinels. Morrison was treading on ground so over played it could have easily destroyed his work before it began. And yet, the point was just that: continuity was irrelevant. This was not a revamp of the X-Men Universe. This was a revamp of how we told the stories, not what stories we told. In his own words Morrison said, “We have to stop talking to the shrinking fan audience and re-engage the attention of the mainstream. Longtime fans will read the book and @$%! about it NO MATTER WHAT. We don’t need to attract them, we need to make the book accessible to the real world audience.” Somehow the creator of The Invisibles got it. Superhero comics are supposed to be fun, and any interest needs to come from characters, not continuity. Starting in 2001, New X-Men was the perfect title to kick off a new decade, and set the tone for much of the superhero titles that followed.

-Jonny

Who says that fairy tales are just for kids? Bill Willingham’s Fables has more than enough intrigue, politics, and drama to fill any number of high-brow literary works. Fables succeeds magnificently at molding the fairy tales you loved as a child into a grown-up saga without ruining your childhood (case in point: Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. Now THAT was a scarring experience). Fables is brilliant because it works on multiple levels. It’s comedy, romance, mystery, and action all at once without denigrating into crass parody. Although some characters are more integral to the story than others, Fables never focuses on just one main character – it’s like a Robert Altman film turned comic book fairy tale. Fables isn’t just a great work of comic book fiction, it’s a great work of fiction, period, proof enough to shut up all the naysayers who believe comics are just for teenage boys and adults caught in arrested development.

Fables begins in modern day New York, where Snow White, her sister Rose Red, King Cole and many others have been exiled after escaping their homelands, fleeing a mysterious threat known only as “The Adversary.” It can be said of many series that they start off a little weak, but only get better as the series goes on. This isn’t quite true for Fables, because while it isn’t weak by any means, the early issues don’t even hint at how rich and complex the world of Fabletown becomes as the series progresses. Volume One opens with Snow White, who is now the right-hand woman of Mayor King Cole, tracking down her sister’s murderer. Things aren’t quite what they seem of course, and as Fables unfolds over 82 issues, events snowball and lead up to the big showdown, in which the villian is unveiled and kingdoms are restored… for a time.

What makes Fables so special is that seemingly minor characters end up as major players later on, significantly altering the lives of the Fable-town residents and becoming more important than they (and the reader) ever imagined they could be. They’re the ones we root the loudest and cry the hardest for. These characters aren’t the elevated paragons of perfection, clear-cut black and white archetypes that we’re used to from traditional fairy tales. They are imperfect beings, with frail relationships handled expertly by Bill Willingham. Prince Charming is a cad who’s had three wives (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, respectively). Snow White and Bigby Wolf have their own relationship problems, him being a wolf the least of them. The most stable relationship in the series is Beauty and the Beast’s. Healthy relationships are almost never interesting in fiction, (and really, who wants to read about happy couples?), but theirs is possibly the most fun, playful and yes, sexy healthy relationship I’ve come across in fiction, ever. No small feat.

And, like any great work of fiction, there is inevitable tragedy. The heartbreak of failed love between two characters is as devastating as the happy ones are uplifting. Late in the series, a final goodbye between a will-they-won’t-they pair ends not in forgiveness, but with one character revealing the hard, unvarnished truth about the other’s shortcomings. And it’s as painful for her to hear as it is for us, as Willingham knowingly wrenches our hearts by wrenching hers. He doesn’t let her off easy, even on his deathbed. And it just breaks your heart in half.

Most series would be content to wrap things up neatly in a bow and leave the residents of Fabletown to their happiness and content, but Bill Willingham never takes the easy route. It doesn’t end in “Happily Ever After” because, just like life, these stories will go on, even after we close the pages of the book.

-Hava

What can I say about Mark Waid that I haven’t already said? When he took a job as editor in chief at BOOM! Studios I assumed Mark was settling down after a long career in comics with a fun job that would eventually end in retirement. I knew he was writing stuff like The Incredibles, but I felt little reason to care. Oblivious to the “Mark Waid is Evil” ad campaign I picked up Irredeemable #1 purely on spec. “Sure,” I thought, “I like Mark Waid.” The ensuing 9 issues were some of 2009’s best reading, a feat that managed to catapult this late comer into the High Five! Comics’ top 5 of the 2000s list.

By the first page of Irredeemable we are immersed in to the world of The Plutonian. Once humanity’s great saviour now the scourge of the earth we are introduced to “Tony” as we witness the terrifying and merciless butchering of a former team mate along with his family. Devastating entire cities, murdering those closest to him, and generally acting like a premium grade douche bag, the once hero now villain parades in a bath of blood not seen since the days of Miracle Man #15. Oh, but there’s more. Not content simply to horrify his readers, Mark Waid crams romance, family, relationships, humanity, and every form of interpersonal drama imaginable into this masterpiece. Arguably, the true brilliance of Irredeemable has been that every panel of every page matters. Clothing, expressions, gestures. Don’t blink, you’ll miss something cool.

True, I can’t give Waid credit for the most innovative concept ever. But, what nobody can deny is that this is one of the decade’s most well plotted, and well paced stories, period. Waid is a master of structure and Irredeemable gives his strengths every opportunity to shine. Think of everything you love about your favorite TV drama. This does that and it does it as well or better. Waid has constructed what may be the most concise and high powered superhero comic of the last decade and for nine months I finished each issue exclaiming, “Dammit why don’t I have the next issue in my hand right f***ing now?!?!” Here at High Five! we anxiously anticipate what BOOM! has in store for the Plutonian and his former friends as their humanity reveals not just who they are, but a little bit of who we are as well.

-Jonny

The best comics start with a great premise. Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets starts with two. The initial hook is all about revenge: Agent Graves can offer you an attaché case containing a gun with one hundred untraceable rounds of ammunition, indisputable proof implicating the person responsible for ruining your life, and the guarantee that you’ll get away with murder should you choose to do something about it. The moral implications are already riveting enough, what would you do, how far would you go for a grudge? And could you ever really find peace of mind in violence? But the pulp stories eventually give way to a broader tale, and the epic scope of the 100 Bullets’ narrative (told across the span of- you guessed it- one hundred issues) is a crime saga larger and more complicated than any ever committed to page or screen.

Most of the credit goes to 100 Bullets’ creators, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso develop a fully-realized world of people who occupy a world that’s highly-stylized, yet unmistakably authentic to our sense of both the highest heights and the farthest margins of society. Azzarello is, without a doubt, the best writer of dialogue in all of comics (and no, it’s not even close). No other scribe in the decade ever attempted to work across such a fearlessly broad spectrum of humanity, nor did any succeed so consummately in capturing the depth and variety of dialects plumbed from all walks of American life. Risso’s art is equal parts glitz and grit, the perfect complement to the “realness” of Azzarello’s writing for figures who emerge from- and retreat back into- shadows both figurative and literal, all blood sparkling on gold jewelry and sharpened teeth.

While 100 Bullets’ early arcs are fodder for some meaty noir tales of dirty deeds and payback, it’s only a matter of time before members of the huge cast of seemingly unrelated characters realize the underlying truth behind Graves’ labyrinthine “game”: Everybody is connected, and if you’re not playing an angle, somebody else is probably playing you as part of theirs. Along the way we uncover the sprawling, mysterious world of the Minutemen, the Trust, and the Greatest Crime in the History of Man. Knowing the long and torturous path ahead for so many of these characters it makes me really wonder- if you knew what was coming at the end of it all, would you have ever opened up that briefcase?

-Brendan

10 (tie).  Walking Dead – Robert Kirkman

I can’t help feeling like this book should probably be #1 on our list. It isn’t (not even in my own personal ranking) because a few others were more popular, had greater impact, etc. But for sheer quality- in both concept and execution- The Walking Dead stood peerless in the 2000s. The book starts from a simple question: “What if every zombie movie you’ve ever seen didn’t actually have to end?” Series creator Robert Kirkman anchors the horror in his characteristically well-drawn characters, each of whom has the opportunity to show complete emotional range and complex, totally natural motivations usually absent from traditionally truncated zombie genre fare. Protagonist Rick Grimes and company endure a hard-fought existence that calls into question the nature of concepts like morality, justice, society and sanity when life becomes a nonstop pursuit of one goal: survival. And that makes anything possible- when the story doesn’t have to work itself to resolution after 90 minutes, all of the rules change. To spoil even one moment of The Walking Dead for a new reader would be criminal, but suffice it to say that nobody is safe, and in a world like this, any/every “normal” person can and will be pushed to things you’d never expect possible. And it is, in all likelihood, the best currently ongoing series in comics.

-Brendan

10 (tie). All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison

I love Superman. I love him as a supporting character. After 80 years as the flagship superhero of comics it feels like everything there was to say about Krypton’s last son has been said. In fact, it was said before a guy like Grant Morrison was even in the biz. Going in to All-Star Superman I felt this way. Then, for 12 marvelous issues I was convinced I needed to know more. Who knew Big Blue had one last arc of good reading in him? I’m sure at some point there will come another author who finds something entertaining to do with Superman, but in the waning years of this last decade it was nice to see creative duo Morrison and Quitely tell me something about Kent I didn’t already know, and wrap it all up so tidily that I felt a sense of closure when it was all said and done.

-Jonny

9. Final Crisis: Revelations – Greg Rucka

Whoa, whoa. Hold on a hot second. A tie-in to an event that’s better than the event itself? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

You’re dumb, and here’s the proof. While Final Crisis was a little, um, disjointed, Revelations was straight up Biblical goodness. Basically, while Darkseid is busy mind-raping everybody with the Anti-Life Equation, newly-appointed Question Renee Montoya is fighting off the Religion of Crime in Gotham (if you ain’t read it, you’re now officially confused). Meanwhile, newly-appointed Spectre (and Renee’s ex-partner since Batman: the Animated Series) Crispus Allen is serving out justice on God’s behalf for those held responsible for the death of the Martian Manhunter. Basically, the book is a team-up between these two: the Huntress, and Radiant, God’s angel of mercy in a battle against many of Darkseid’s Justifiers and Vandal Savage (who is possessed by Cain from the Bible).

-Rob

8. Y: The Last Man – Brian K. Vaughn
Sort of a weird thing happened in the last decade. Since Hollywood’s bankruptcy of original intellectual properties, we’ve seen so many mediocre, utterly forgettable comics adaptations that we’ve forgotten a time when not every book was viewed in terms of its potential to sustain a film or television franchise. Instead, we’ve begun new lives in an alternate universe where your Aunt whose favorite musician is Michael Buble can tell you who Harry Osborne’s dad is, and the more intellectual set might deign to deride a new theatrical release by saying something like “Eh… I think it would have been better as a comic book.” A shining example of the opposite in effect, Vertigo’s Y: The Last Man is one a truly few number of titles that openly begs to be realized in moving pictures small or large. The story of the last living carriers of a Y chromosome on Earth (20-something Yorrick Brown and his monkey, Ampersand) moves along a pace that perfectly balances its dual nature as both an episodic and serial narrative while introducing us to a hugely diverse cast of female (naturally) characters who all have different goals and motivations driving them to live in a new world without men. At times, the book could be almost soapy in how relationships progress and evolve, and I’d be lying if I said I loved the plot’s final resolution, but for 60 issues Y exhibited an undeniable quality that said this is just the kind of great story- and storytelling– that’s fit for today’s enlightened masses. It’s no wonder that series co-creator Brian K. Vaughn wound up plying his trade doing just that as a writer on ABC’s Lost.

-Brendan

7. Astonishing X-Men – Joss Whedon

Poor Piotr. He spends all that time being good while falling for that underage Lolita, Kitty Pryde. Then he dies. And then, suddenly, he comes back to life and she’s of age! They bump legal uglies and everything is coming up Colossus! Until, you know, Ord shows up with a giant space bullet pointed at Earth and Kitty Pryde has to phase into it and ride it into deep space to save all of us. Yup. Joss Whedon has made a career out of cockblocking and then killing off your favorite characters in everything he touches (see: every girl Xander ever got involved with).

Oh, yeah, plus this book gave us Abbie Brand and S.W.O.R.D. (which is kinda cool) and features art by John Cassaday and Simone Bianchi that is just fucking gorgeous. Now, with Warren Ellis at the helm and the announcement of a few more Astonishing titles, I’m curious to see where they take this from here.

-Rob

6. Invincible – Robert Kirkman

I’m not really much of a fan of Image Comics. I’m not sure if it’s just the stigma that comes with the name (and, yes, I’ll admit that Liefeld’s name does subconsciously affect my opinion) but I just can’t get into it. I’m sorry. Get over it.

Now that I have that out of the way, let’s discuss Invincible. The story of a young man who develops superpowers and decides to use it for the good of mankind yadda yadda nothing new. So what sets it apart exactly? Well, for one, our main character (conveniently named Invincible) has some, well, let’s say family issues with his father, fellow super-being Omni-Man. Pair that with his kid brother’s budding powers, dealing with his girlfriend/classmate/former superhero partner, and the government jerking him around, it is actually a very compelling superhero story. Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the other stuff on Image’s line-up. So far.

Why do I say this? Well, Invincible has all ready had a crossover with Savage Dragon, Astounding Wolf-Man, and Brit (which, might I add, was done surprisingly well). With Invincible #60, they’ve decided to throw Spawn, Witchblade, and Pitt (oh, Pitt) into the mix and, well, that’s where I get a bit dodgy. I can’t bring myself to read Image United but here’s hoping that it doesn’t turn a great book like Invincible into just another Image title.

-Rob

15. Blankets – Craig Thompson

It’s hard to write an original love story. How does one make the most universal of plotlines fresh and interesting? By re-telling his tortured relationship between his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and his first real love, Thompson gives us a unique twist on the autobiographical love story. Most of Thompson’s childhood and teenage years in small town Michigan are set during the harsh winter season. Thompson’s beautiful black and white drawings are a perfect complement to the stark, bleak beauty of his Midwestern hometown. Thompson has a big, sweeping lyrical style, but finest moments in Blankets are mostly silent. Like a silent film, Blankets’ strongest impact is in the images, such as the long dream sequence where the two lovers are mingled in the patchwork quilt Raina gives Craig.

What makes Blankets so compelling is Craig’s conflict between his deep-seated devotion to God and his passionate feelings for Raina. Religion rarely gets tackled in comics, and rarely as subtly as Thomson tackles it here. Without demonizing his former faith, he raises good, hard questions about his beliefs, and doesn’t give us any easy answers. What’s so refreshing is that Thompson leaves Craig’s relationship with Raina unresolved. When his relationship with Raina ends, it isn’t neat and tidy. Like real life, it’s messy and complicated, and sometimes we never see that person again. You wait to see if he’s going to circle back to Raina, and tell the reader what happened, but they are left hanging, just like in real life. Thompson spent five years on his 500+ page labor of love, and he leaves a moving testament to childhood, love and faith.

-Hava

14. Black Hole – Charles Burns

Set in 1970s Seattle, Black Hole is about the spread of a sexually transmitted disease that causes grotesque mutations in the teenagers who contract it. It’s also a horror comic, and Charles Burns’ tremendous work draws heavily in its aesthetic from the fantastically lurid grindhouse and slasher films of that era. But as you might expect, Black Hole is really just about growing up, and the physical transformations that the kids in the story go through only serve to literalize the genuine horrors of real-life adolescence. The sexual nature of their encounters and the complications that arise in their relationships reflect universal themes of immaturity, ignorance, shame, and alienation that pretty much all of us experience at that age. And, as with the high-schoolers in Black Hole, these are the trials that ultimately lead us to make the awkward transition into adulthood… or at least to just get the fuck out of town as soon as we’re able.

-Brendan

13. Ultimate Spider-Man – Brian Michael Bendis

If you’ve never read a Spider-Man comic before, what do you know about him? How does our impression of arguably the greatest character in the history of comic books differ between his official continuity and the cultural canon? It probably isn’t all alien symbiotes or organic web shooters versus mechanical or having six-arms or clones names Ben or the trials of marriage (let alone any “Brand New Days”) or the even Daily Bugle and getting his ass yelled at a lot for just trying to get on with his day.

Well, wait. Maybe that last one…

Spider-Man is beloved above and beyond all else for being the superhero we can relate to, the guy who’s life as Peter Parker was often as dramatically true to life as his costumed exploits were fantastic and, more importantly, were just as compelling and fun to read than the smash and bash, if not more so. So when the Ultimate Universe idea came around, it makes sense that Spidey was the most perfect fit for the update: Take all the stuff that we remember and love about Peter Parker’s history, and place it in a simple, modern context without all the decades of convolution. What you get is a 15 year old kid who has to deal with new powers (and new responsibilities) after he’s bitten by a radioactive spider… on top of dealing with high school. And it works. All the greatest moments get their due, and Brian Michael Bendis gives us as much meaningful time with Gwen Stacey, Mary Jane Watson, and the gang as he does thrills watching Pete quip one-liners as he puts the beats on the Green Goblin, Electro, and Doctor Octopus.

It works so perfectly that, like an awesome TV show that runs way too many seasons too long, it inevitably becomes just as convoluted as the series it was created to simplify, and actually had to be rebooted/relaunched itself! That’s comics for you. But for sixty-some issues, Bendis and series regular artist Mark Bagley delivered our friendly neighborhood web slinger as not as we know and love him, but as we felt like we knew and loved him. Which is really way better anyway.

-Brendan

12. Green Lantern: Rebirth – Geoff Johns

Love him or hate him, Geoff Johns was unarguably the continuity guru of the 2000’s, and his rise to prominence can be pinned on a single event: Green Lantern: Rebirth. Regardless of what critics have said of his work, Johns’ impact on the DCU was both immense and undeniable. First off, Johns brought Silver Age legend Hal Jordan back to life, reviving popular interest in the previously b-list Green Lantern Corps, spawning several on-going books, and a big-budget blockbuster movie. If that wasn’t enough, the success of this single story line managed to set the tone for DC continuity, landed Johns some of the best selling comic mini-series of his day, and poised him for a role as the head creative voice at DC Comics. Not too shabby.

-Maggie

11. DMZ – Brian Wood

DMZ’s portrait of a besieged Manhattan told through the lens of a semi-disaffected, semi-independent reporter is a book firing on all cylinders. Striking visuals evoke a place almost, but not entirely, unlike the New York City of today, and Brian Wood guides the reader through the morass of the city with the same ambivalence to the journalistic form as his lead character, Matty Roth. Whether you think Brian Wood glimpsed the future of the fragile Union, or if he’s just writing a different kind of the “real America,” cultural polarization hyperbole that has been the media’s stock-in-trade for the past few years, DMZ thrives so deeply in the ambiguity that it will keep even the most opinionated engaged. Not that this book lacks clarity of moral vision—there is good and there is evil—but they are rarely as clear as borders on a map.

-Darryl


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