May 11, 2011

Ask Duy: Five Highlights in Five Years

Over on my Facebook page, Christopher Cornejo asked me to name five highlights in the past five years in comics that have made me keep my faith in the medium. As it is, I've been very disappointed with many trends in comics over the last decade or so. Mainly, I'm annoyed that a lot of comics these days feel like they're being written specifically to be adapted into movies. The whole Ultimate line in Marvel is an example of this, and the works of one of their writers in particular seem to always come out more as "printed storyboards" than they do comics. Regular readers of this website know how I am, and how much I love things that only comics can do, so this trend in particular has been very disheartening.

On the flipside, I'm also disheartened by how much depressing stuff there is — as if a call to realism is always meant to reflect only the harsh portions of life. In other words, take it away, Mike Allred:

"Batman A-Go-Go" can be read in its entirety here.

However, there have been some comics in that time period that have made me deliriously happy, and have kept me believing in the comics medium.

Now, as per Christopher's question, I'm limiting it plainly and simply to comics that came out in or after 2006, so even though ALL-STAR SUPERMAN is the greatest Superman story of all time and I think SPIDER-MAN AND HUMAN TORCH: I'M WITH STUPID is the most entertaining Spider-Man and/or Human Torch story in history, they came out in 2005 and are therefore disqualified.

The list also can't include artists or works I just discovered but have been around for many years. For example, I knew Jack Kirby was great, but after discovering his FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS, it felt like discovering him all over again. Same thing with David Mazzucchelli on ASTERIOS POLYP. That can't count.

And finally, I have to have discovered a new artist or writer, or a new appreciation for an old one, in these picks. BATWOMAN can't count because I've always loved JH Williams III anyway. There are, however, two picks in the following where I knew the artists beforehand but didn't really appreciate them until these works.

That's okay, because I have enough to work with. And here we go.

5. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN by Dan Slott and Marcos Martin

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that my favorite superhero is the Amazing Spider-Man (he's in the top 5 for sure), which is probably evidenced by the fact that he's still the only character to get a theme week on the Cube (Spider-Man Week). However, for a long time I wasn't reading any Spider-Man comics, simply because it got so depressing and dark to look at. Most recently though, Dan Slott took over the title and injected Spider-Man with a whole lot of fun and humor again. In other words, Spider-Man is fun to read, and with artists like Humberto Ramos, Stefano Casselli, and Ty Templeton, he's fun to look at.

Having said that, it's not as if the serious stuff leaves Peter Parker forever. Issue #655 is very serious and deals with death, and is drawn by the artist I discovered in the past five years under Dan Slott, Marcos Martin, who is one of the greatest at layouts and page design that I've ever seen. His figures are an acquired taste — they seem neurotic and offbeat — and his compositional skills are off the page. In so many ways, I think he's been the modern-day Steve Ditko, and he also reminds me in several ways of David Mazzucchelli, and that's high praise indeed.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #655 by Slott and Martin will go down in history as a masterpiece of comic book art. It even pays tribute to my favorite non-comics artist, MC Escher!

Dan Slott is currently writing AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and Marcos Martin will be working on the relaunched DAREDEVIL with Mark Waid. I first discovered them on BRAND NEW DAY, BOOK 3, but the more famous Martin arc may be the one he did with Waid, "Unscheduled Stop" in DEATH AND DATING.

4. MOUSE GUARD by David Petersen

Well, what can I say about MOUSE GUARD that I've not said in this review? It's good for all ages, which is always, always a plus. In a world without humans, mice are intelligent and have to fend for themselves. The result is one incredible fantasy tale with mice as the main characters.

Artwise, MOUSE GUARD is just beautiful. Petersen doesn't do layouts as fancy as Martin, instead preferring straightforward storytelling and beautiful, classicist artwork. I mean, LOOK AT THAT SNAKE!

There have been two volumes of MOUSE GUARD's main story: FALL 1152 and WINTER 1152. There's also a collection of short stories set in this universe done by guest artists, LEGENDS OF THE GUARD, and a prequel called THE BLACK AXE is currently in the process of being released.

3. LIFE WITH ARCHIE: THE MARRIED LIFE, by Paul Kupperberg and Norm Breyfogle

I know what you're thinking. "What the hell is ARCHIE doing on this list? And why is it so high up?" Well, yeah, that's how good LIFE WITH ARCHIE is.

As I've said before, Archie gets a bad rap. To most comics fans, it's "the comic read by people who don't otherwise read comics," and to the people who do read Archie, they find it to be just a way to pass the time. But with artists like Dan DeCarlo (without whom there would be no LOVE AND ROCKETS — think about that, indie fans), Archie's got a great history and occupies a special place in the pantheon of comics, and LIFE WITH ARCHIE is adding to that history here with writing by Paul Kupperberg and art by Norm Breyfogle.

In a very counterintuitive way, using the Archie characters to show the difficulties and challenges of adult life is really powerful. Because it's Archie, you can get away with a ton of stuff that would normally be considered cheesy in any other story. And because it's Archie, you can take that cheesy stuff and run with it so it becomes powerful. I go into more detail in my review of the first couple of issues.

The artist I discovered here is Norm Breyfogle. Now don't get me wrong — I've seen Breyfogle's work in the past on BATMAN, but I can't say I really noticed it. He was a superhero artist among superhero artists, and as such it was harder to stand out. But he shines on Archie, giving these characters a subtlety and depth that I never, ever realized would work for them. His work on these is just as strong as Craig Thompson's or any of the Hernandezes'. It just works.

The success of LIFE WITH ARCHIE is such that it's even inspired a list from Topless Robot. Check out those moments and see if you're sold.

2. THE WORMWORLD SAGA by Daniel Lieske

There are two other things in comics that I'm disheartened by. One is the evolution of digital comics — I mean to write about this in more detail, but I just don't think you can replace ink on paper, nor do I think that the Philippine economy can sustain digital comics — and the other is that kids don't read comics anymore.

Daniel Lieske, with THE WORMWORLD SAGA, addresses both of these issues. It tells the story of a young boy named Jonas, who has a hyperactive imagination. This leads him to a fantasy world, the story of which will be continued sometime this year.

Lieske's art is lush and gorgeous, and really draws you into the world. AND he takes full advantage of the fact that it's on a computer, so the sequences are read vertically, without any thought given to page breaks. The result is the feeling that you're reading it on a scroll, and when you consider that he's taking steps to put it on the iPad, it actually feels pretty cool!

I like it because it makes me optimistic that digital comics will be, while not a different one, a differentiated medium from paper comics, and as such because of THE WORMWORLD SAGA, I don't view it as a replacement so much as an additional form of enjoyment.

You can read THE WORMWORLD SAGA right here!

1. THE ESCAPISTS, by Brian K. Vaughan, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Steve Rolston

There is no comic book story that I have read in the last five years that can match the heart and the emotion given by THE ESCAPISTS. No, I don't think I'd even give ASTERIOS POLYP that honor, and I don't think I've been as affected by a story as much before, other than maybe GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE. Now, I've reviewed THE ESCAPISTS here before, so I'll keep this short.

As a spiritual sequel to Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, which is also my favorite novel ever,THE ESCAPISTS tell the story of three friends — Max, Case, and Denny — who have the rights to Chabon's fictional superhero (that's odd to hear), The Escapist. They want to revive him for a new generation, so you have two parallel narratives. The one taking place in the real world is drawn in the cartoony style of Steve Rolston, who captures subtlety and nuance. You can really tell what the characters are thinking and feeling:

The sequences in the comic book world are drawn in the dark and gritty style of Jason Shawn Alexander:

The split is interesting, and is indicative of the big split in comics: you use cartoony styles to express emotion and make the reader feel as if they were that character, and you use realistic styles to make the reader feel like a spectator. It's counterintuitive, but it works. And because it works, it's even more powerful when the narrative from one world converges with the pictures from the other:

All this leads up to an artistic climax that I wouldn't dare spoil here, and the adventures of Max, Case, and Denny all lead up to the most inspiring ending I've ever had the pleasure of reading off a page.

If I could only recommend one comic book from the past five years to you, it would be this one. You can buy it here.

Well, that's that! Have I missed anything? What have you guys liked in the last five years? Let me know in the comments below!


Matthew said...

I would add the return of Booster Gold. For me, it's a comic that retains an over-arching theme, but one that knows to have fun sometimes. It's more a joy to read sometimes than the endless galactic problems of GL, despite my fondness for the Corps.

Duy Tano said...

Oh yeah, that one was really well received. How're you liking it now that it's tied in to Flashpoint?

Jon Gorga said...

Another great post Duy! I'd never heard of it and I'm looking forward to reading The Wormworld Saga... which I'm going to do right now!

Because it looks incredible.

Everything else I'm already aware of and enjoyed. Although I haven't finished "The Escapeists", and I'm surprised to see it on top of your list. I think I should get on that.


Duy Tano said...

Hi Jon! The Wormworld Saga just kinda went viral a couple of months ago. I think I saw it through Scott McCloud's site. It does look incredible. I absolutely love THE ESCAPISTS, and the ending in particular really struck home for me. I can't actually decide if I like that better than ASTERIOS POLYP.

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