Sunday, December 31, 2006

Double Articulation Digest: The Year in Review (Part 2)

On Saturday, I looked at my favorite books of the year. Today I cast an eye over books that are ripe with potential but are still finding their feet, as well as books (or partial runs of series) worthy of particular praise, even if they don’t quite make the cut for “Best of the Year.”

Promising and Notable Books (2006)

1. Justice Society of America – The most exciting #1 of the year. Hands down.

2. Batman (Morrison/Kubert) – A tantalizing and overdue return to a more colorful Bat-sensibility, but where’d it go? There’s something cozy about the merely passable Ostrander/Mandrake “Grotesk” story arc currently in progress, but its tone couldn’t be further removed from the James Bond Batman that Morrison was developing. A “re-imagining” of the magnitude Morrison promised requires consistency to work, even if it is only within a single Bat-title. It would be too bad if Morrison’s jauntier playboy Batman ends up to be just a missed opportunity.

3. Wonder Woman – Alan Heinberg and the Dodsons? I love it. I’m even prepared to wait for it. My only complaint is that there are too many superheroics (and heroes and villains) hogging the spotlight in this frantically-paced opening arc. Let’s hope this is followed up by one of those “day in the life” issues laden with character moments and subplots, hmm?

4. Checkmate – Intelligent and compelling. Arguably DC’s slickest, most adult mainstream book. And it reintroduced the sorely missed Suicide Squad.

5. Justice League of America – I haven’t liked the pacing of this opening arc at all. (Meltzer needs to worry less about the feints and reveals and more about basic storytelling.) It has been an undeniably exciting ride nonetheless. More than anything else, I’m excited about the possibilities for this book down the line and the incredible JLA line-up that exploits the as yet untapped potential of DC’s lost 80s generation (about which you will be hearing a lot from me this year). Vixen? Geo-Force? “Doctor Jace”? Black Lightening? Arsenal? Trident? Cyborg? This is the first time since Morrison that the JLA has felt like a truly fresh property.

6. Nightwing – Wha… huh? You bet. The Wolfman is back, baby. Granted, Marv’s first story arc was saddled with the turgid pencils of Dan Jurgens, but thank goodness for the return of some old-school storytelling. The half dozen issues of this title prior to Wolfman’s assignment as writer were mind-bogglingly unreadable. Truly awful stuff. What a breath of fresh air to have this character back in the hands of the writer who defined him. You show those punk kids how it’s done, Marv. Your reward? The talented Jamal Igle!

7. Manhunter – May the appearance of Wonder Woman in the new arc finally help this entertaining and distinctive book find the elusive wider audience it’s been seeking.

8. Green Lantern – I’ve been enjoying the return of Hal Jordan for the last couple of years, but I haven’t been completely grabbed by the series until the last few Global Guardians issues (I especially enjoyed the reintroduction of all those weird Green Lantern science fiction villains in issue #15). After a year or so of housecleaning and set-up, the series finally feels like its heading into interesting territory. And finally, the return of the only Green Lantern villain worth getting really excited about: Star Sapphire! Reis is the ideal artist for this series, and I hope he stays because the book would take a serious hit without his sumptuous visuals.

9. Jonah Hex – It’s wonderful to read a book as assured as this one, whose gritty and engrossing re-energizing of the Western genre continues to impress. The current Hex origin story is fantastic, and I wish that Bernet would stay on as artist indefinitely; failing that, I’d love it if they could tap Eduardo Barreto as regular artist.

10. Detective Comics – It’s been awhile since I’ve been a regular Batman reader, and I’m enjoying Dini and Kramer’s stand-alone Bat tales quite a bit. Kramer’s art looks better here than it did on JSA and Dini is doing a very nice job of rebuilding Batman’s rogues gallery—in fact, the storytelling “model” here feels very similar to what Geoff Johns did on Flash, and that’s a good thing.

11. Moon Knight – Brutal, ugly, gratuitous...and ingenious. One of the few Marvel books that I enjoyed this year. Can Huston and Finch sustain the momentum? Here’s hoping.

Wednesday: Year in Review Continues with: On Probation, Disappointments, and Unmitigated Catastrophes

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Double Articulation Digest: The Year in Review (Part 1)

Let’s take a look at the old pull-list, shall we? It’s always tricky to evaluate comic books by year, given the wild fluctuations in quality that perennially afflict ongoing titles (and even miniseries) over the course of twelve months. In an effort to make some meaningful distinctions, I’ve categorized the books I buy according to several sub-lists that I will be posting over the following week: The Best of My Pull-List (2006) (today), Promising and Notable Books (Monday), On Probation, Disappointments, and Unmitigated Catastrophes (all on Wednesday). Not included on any lists are several books that I’m way behind on and buying as trades (Fables, Y the Last Man, Godland--all excellent).

The Best of My Pull-List (2006)

1. All-Star Superman – Despite a disappointing cinematic interpretation, 2006 was Superman’s year. Who cares if this series only comes out every six months—it’s one of the few that can legitimately make the argument that great art takes time. These are stories for the ages.

2. Seven Soldiers of Victory – Morrison at his most maddening and dazzling. The last page of Seven Soldiers #1 is perhaps the purest encapsulation of Morrison’s beautiful secularization of religious themes yet. I want the poster.

3. 52 – I can’t really argue with Ian Brill’s charge that many of the individual issues seem uneven or even (sacrelige!) mediocre, but this series is greater than the sum of its parts and has reset the bar for comic book “events” by addressing the temporal experience of reading and the distribution schedule of the medium rather than just focusing on the content of the story itself. (What other event can claim to have captured the “Wednesday” experience in a bottle?)

4. Birds of Prey – What can I say that I haven’t said already? If you’re still not reading this book, you’re missing DC’s best monthly.

5. Infinite Crisis – Uneven, but riveting. Although it never quite achieves the gravitas of the original Crisis, it hopscotched its way through a memorable series of emotional (and adrenaline filled) highs and lows.

6. Superman (Busiek/Pacheco) – With only a handful of issues under their belt, Busiek and Pacheco have infused more excitement and sheer coolness into Superman than I thought possible. Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman is a science fiction myth; Busiek and Pecheco’s Superman is a seamless blend of Metropolis story and sf superhero saga.

7. Doctor Strange: The Oath – Remember wit? This one was a very pleasant surprise, and Entertainment Weekly agrees. Finally, the Doctor is in! Er, out! Er…whatever!

8. Action Comics (Johns/Donner/Kubert) – Exhilarating. But be warned: for sentimentalists only.

9. Secret Six – Not quite as good as Villains United, but pretty damn close. Brad Walker stepped into Dale Eaglesham’s considerable shoes from out of left field and completely made these characters his own. Simone’s lurid, titillating, so-wrong-it’s-right, Alice-in-Wonderland script does not disappoint.

10. Freedom Fighters – I have enough Canuck prejudice in me that I never thought I could enjoy a book whose primary theme was American patriotism. Palmiotti, Grey, and Acuña proved me wrong—waaayyy wrong. In an entirely different league than the silly miniseries that spawned it and a tonic for its line-wide counterpart at Marvel. (Sure, it’s cartoon politics, but still!)

11. Thunderbolts – Nicieza and Grummett have recaptured the magic of the Byzantine original, and how does Marvel thank them? By kicking them off one of the last bastions of classic Marvel storytelling. Hmph. Ellis and Deodato had better be worth it, gang.

12. Annihilation – A rip-snorting cosmic adventure that gathers steam with every issue. Jaw-dropping moments galore, even if, like me, you only recognize about half the cast. Pure militaristic fanboy fun.

Monday: Promising and Notable Books of 2006

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Mirth Without Mischief: Twelve Pleasing Pastimes

Holy cow, is it Christmas?

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Not quite sure what happened to December, but I have briefly (and temporarily) reemerged from work-related things long enough to clean up the apartment, deck a fake tree, and read plok’s dangerously head-swelling post from December 3rd (!) on that enigmatic little triptych of mine. What a Christmas present—bless you, sir!

I had grand ideas for this year’s holiday post, but I’m sufficiently burnt out from term that the follow through just wasn’t in me. Maybe next year. Instead, let me recycle last year’s reflections on a favorite Daredevil Christmas story of mine (I would have found a way to say the same things again in a different form anyway), and offer a few remarks on twelve things that have kept me afloat these last few months and for which I give thanks on these (already in progress) Twelve Days of Christmas.

12. James Bond - Stephen King recently remarked after seeing Casino Royale: “I came out of the theater thinking it was the best Bond since Goldfinger. A subsequent viewing of Goldfinger…has convinced me it’s the best Bond ever.” I couldn’t agree more, but that’s no reason not to give in to the temptation of the 4 vol. James Bond Ultimate Edition collecting the twenty (official) films of James Bond B.C. (Before Craig). I watched many of these films a few years ago during a TBS Bond Marthon (“Superbond on the Superstation”)—over Christmas break, I believe. I was doped up on Sinutab at the time and all the movies sort of bled into each other in an extraordinarily pleasing way.

11. The Wild Wild West - And when you run out of Bond, there’s always West, James West. Please, forget everything you think you know about this series from the dreadful-looking Will Smith/Kevin Kline summer suckfest of the same name (I didn’t see it). Yes, the 1960s TV show is a rip-off of James Bond set in the American West, but it’s a spectacularly entertaining rip-off, and that’s all that matters. Season 1 (currently out on DVD) is in black and white, but don’t let that discourage you. These episodes are perfect '60s mixed genre tales with a little something for everyone: a cowboy/martial artist (!) hero (the usually shirtless Robert Conrad), an affable, resourceful, and long-suffering sidekick (Ross Martin), gorgeous, dangerous women (usually femmes fatales rather than damsels in distress, though often both), scenery chewing villains with world-conquering ambitions played by an array of classic character actors (who later had careers on nighttime soaps in the 1980s), more gothic traps (and trappings) than you could shake a stick at, an endless stream of steampunk sci-fi spy gizmos, and, of course, a seriously pimped out train. The stories—precisely because they were camp to begin with—stand up remarkably well.

10. Birds of Prey - Rarely is a first-tier series that is already running like a finely oiled machine retooled so gracefully. Gail Simone and incredible new find, penciller Nicola Scott (hopefully destined for a long run on the book), are keeping the Birds flying high—possibly even taking them to new, more exhilarating heights with the expansion of the cast to include such unlikely (but delicious) additions as Big Barda, Manhunter (star of another stellar book), a new Spy Smasher, and an unexpectedly appealing fangirl/Batgirl wannabe. Under Simone’s tenure (and with the help of a great group of artists), Birds of Prey has reached a level of storytelling quality, creative energy, and consistency that makes it one of a handful of DC’s unmissable books. It is quite simply the best treatment of a primarily female superhero cast in recent memory, and it is probably the best character-driven book in contemporary comics period.

9. Justice Society of America - And speaking of impressive retoolings of already excellent books… Dale Eaglesham? Geoff Johns? Dawnstar?? Kingdome Come??? The excitement level for this book is off the charts. The relaunch of JSA as the cornerstone book of the new DCU looks simply incredible. I met Eaglesham at a convention this year and learned that, in addition to being a superb artist, he’s also one heck of a nice guy—I couldn’t be happier that he’s the artist on this title. I’m also delighted that Johns will be pouring his energies into this book, since JSA has been, arguably, the strongest and most consistent work of his career so far. (I think it’s time to pass the Teen Titans on to someone else—Marv?) The first issue of Justice Society of America was a winner, stuffed with great new characters, tensions, mysteries, revelations, and teases—all wrapped up in an immediately engrossing story foregrounding the series’s legacy theme, which I love. Time to collect All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc, DC.

8. YouTube - There is much that is (delightfully) ridiculous about the content on You Tube, but occasionally the ridiculous takes a detour through the sublime. Exhibit A: the lo-fi stop-motion mini epic, Tony vs. Paul. Spectacular. Less sublime, but still gratifying is the ubiquitous Live Action Hamster Video Game. And on the subject of YouTube and gaming, is it wrong to be a fan of the elastic-faced Angry Video Game Nerd and his sophomoric profanity? He has an informative rant that attacks sequel numbering fuckups in movies and videogames with a rigor that I appreciate.

7. Andy Goldsworthy - This is who I would like to be, if I were a talented, faintly tortured artistic genius. Goldsworthy’s fleeting and profound art/nature “installations” are a perpetual source of wonder. He provides the best gloss on the significance and power of his art in this clip from Rivers and Tides (the stunning documentary on his work) when he says, “I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.” Here is a second excerpt from that film. Stefan Beyst has a nice essay on the artist. And here are some photographs of the work.

6. Calvin and Hobbes Snowman Cartoons - I certainly don’t want to encourage the war on Christmas lunatics, but now that the snowman has become the prime signifier of ecumenical winter cheer it’s nice to remember that he need not be as dull as he often seems. This is nice too.

5. George Perez Storyteller - A Christmas gift from a good friend that I tore through on Christmas day. There have been collections on Perez before, usually in the form of interviews, but this is the first time I’ve been walked through his entire career. What a trip. Particularly fascinating for Perez fans will be the middle sections on his post-Titans decline, his mid-career fumbles, and the subsequent rejuvenation of his reputation following his run with Kurt Busiek on the “Heroes Return” Avengers. Perez recounts a priceless convention moment when, after his Avengers work allowed his “discovery” by a new generation of fans, one kid told him that he was such a good artist, he had the potential to be the next Todd McFarlane! Ever-gracious, Perez resisted the cheap shot. An attractive and surprisingly revealing book. (Finally, the cringe-inducing Sachs and Violens at least makes sense.) The Newsarama interview here. And a preview of Storyteller too.

4. Tintin: The Complete Companion - Tintinology 101 by noted Tintinologist Michael Farr. A superb account of Herge’s career and influences, and also a fascinating record of the twentieth century. I received this as a gift from a friend earlier in the year and have been delving into it with enormous delight for the past few months. I have been intending to explore my fixation on Tintin ever since I started this blog, but have always held off—I think for fear of not doing justice to a body of work that means a great deal to me. Working on it…

3. The Office - I’m usually not all that fond of comedies. Cheers, Seinfeld, Fawlty Towers: these are the obvious exceptions. Comedies whose humor seems (almost) timeless. Don’t know if the American version of The Office will stand the test of time or not, but few comedies make me actually ache with laughter, and this one does. Not sure I’ve ever seen such a deft juggling of mockery and sympathy.

2. 52 - Still the first comic I read every week, and always among the most enjoyable. But even when a given issue fails to dazzle, the momentum of the weekly experience carries me through. Watching it unfold is exhilarating for many reasons. Partly, it is the form—the thrilling momentum of weekly seriality as such. Partly it is the brilliant interweaving of high-pleasure comic book staples such as the training of a successor (The Question/Renee Montoya), the “who is behind the mask” mystery (Supernova), and the Romance-Quest (Ralph Dibney). Partly (and this is a big part), it is the focus on secondary characters. But beyond this, it is the sheer line-wide scope of the storytelling, both at the level of plot and in terms of stakes and implications (what is “52”? the “Grant Morrison factor”, etc.). Thrilled to hear that DC plans to revisit this kind of storytelling in the future—it’s the essence of comics, comin’at’cha every seven days. Wonder what Marvel could do with this?

1. Battlestar Galactica - Just watched the miniseries and am starting Season 1. OMFG.

Happy New Year, everyone.