30 Dec 2009

Mini Reviews - Best Of 2009

Another year done and dusted. As with 2008's 'Best Of' list we've gone through our reviews over the last 12 months and picked our 10 favourite books during that period (limiting ourselves to one mention per title!). Original reviews are reprinted along with new comments...

Matt C's Top 10 of 2009

Unquestionably the best major league ‘event book’ published by either of the Big Two in recent times. That may sound like faint praise when you consider the competition, but this genuinely is blockbuster comic book storytelling at its best.

BLACKEST NIGHT #1 (review originally published 19/07/2009)
Writer: Geoff Johns
Art: Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert
DC $3.99

Matt C: These days, with ‘event fatigue’ becoming more and more of a reality following a litany of disappointments, it’s a real surprise to find a debut issue of a major, Universe-altering miniseries from one of the Big Two that actually delivers on its promise, but that’s precisely what Blackest Night does. With Geoff Johns in charge this feels a lot more weighty than the usual high concept, soulless money-spinners we’ve seen of late; this is a brilliantly paced and frequently shocking issue that succeeds beyond the undeniably enticing ‘undead superheroes’ idea thanks to Johns’ deft handling of some of DC’s most recognizable icons along with some striking blockbuster visuals courtesy of Reis. The aforementioned shocks, although liable to get the backs up of some sections of the fanbase, seem necessary and logical within the context of the story rather than simply thrown in for the hell of it. All in all, this is a hugely promising start and another sign (along with the Bat-books and Wednesday Comics) that DC are starting to reclaim ground lost to their main rivals over the last couple of years. 9/10

The disappointing Reborn mini may have scuppered the forward momentum of Brubaker’s brilliant narrative somewhat, but you only have to look back to earlier in the year to see that when the writer delivered the goods on this book, he did it in style.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #46 (review originally published 01/02/2009)
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Art: Steve Epting
Marvel $2.99

Matt C: Just when I was starting to get worried this title was losing its edge it rebounds with an absolutely terrific issue that ticks all the right boxes in a way we haven’t seen for the last couple of months. The relationship between Bucky and the Sub-Mariner is perfectly realised: Namor may well possess an innate distrust of the surface world’s general populace, but you can tell that James Buchanan Barnes is someone he’d walk through the gates of Hell beside (although he’d never admit it!). It’s good to have Epting back and he rewards us with beautifully constructed action scene in Taiwan, with Frank D’Armata’s ominous colours bolstering the rainswept atmospherics. Add to that Bru’s astute script and you have a book that’s well and truly back on form. 9/10

With one issue left to go it’s still too early to say for sure, but this is could potentially stand beside Ennis’ very best work. It’s certainly leagues ahead of the numerous other zombie titles that are currently clogging the shelves of our local comic book stores.

CROSSED #7 (review orignally published 11/10/2009)
Writer: Garth Ennis
Art: Jacen Burrows
Avatar $3.99

Matt C: At this point the characters feel a lot less like zombie fodder and a lot more like people we’ve come to care about, which pretty much means Ennis has us in the palm of his hand and he can do whatever he likes. Basically, no one’s safe here, a fact that the writer highlights to horrifying effect this issue. With help from Burrows, who provides some expressive visual characterization along with the expected repulsive imagery, Ennis has had the all the ammunition to deliver what – so far – has been 2009’s most startling miniseries. 9/10

It’s Williams’ art that immediately grabs you, but you soon realise Rucka’s doing some of his finest work in years on scripting duties. Surprisingly, the best Bat-book currently being published doesn’t even feature the Dark Knight at all.

DETECTIVE COMICS #854 (review originally published 28/06/2009)
Writer: Greg Rucka
Art: J.H. Williams III & Cully Hamner
DC $3.99

Matt C: I’ve always preferred Greg Rucka’s more grounded, street-level superhero storytelling, so even though it features a different lead character I was eager to see him return to the title that really cemented his reputation as one of DC’s top writers almost a decade ago. The other draw was the unique, boundary-pushing artwork from J.H. Williams III who’s previously melted minds with his stunning, style-shredding illustrations in Alan Moore’s Promethea. I had pretty high expectations then, but this book caught me off guard by far exceeding them. Spinning out of events last seen in 52 and Rucka’s mini Crime Bible: Books Of Blood (yeah, it's a little late!) this new arc sees Batwoman continuing her quest to root out the acolytes of the Crime Bible in Gotham. The script is taut and realistic with Rucka steadfastly avoiding any sensationalist aspects of Kate Kane’s sexuality, and the art is glorious, Williams' panel layouts and stylistic changes to reflect the tone are always surprising and vital – that double-page scissor-kick splash will knock your socks off! This is a perfect example of words and images colliding to produce something unique, something that couldn’t be replicated in any other medium. Truly sublime. The back-up Question tale is fine - formulaic, but good to see Rucka getting his teeth into a character he’s made his own once more. Out of all the ‘new’ Bat-books – and yes, I’m including Batman And Robin – this is the pick of the bunch so far. 9/10

It hasn’t quite matched the thrill of the tremendous first issue, but Brubaker’s attempt to provide a cohesive timeline to the birthing of the Marvel Universe is still very impressive, and Epting seems to get better with each passing panel.

THE MARVELS PROJECT #1 (review originally published 09/08/2009)
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Art: Steve Epting
Marvel $3.99

Matt C: An exceptional start to the series that seeks to provide the definite story of the birth of the Marvel Universe as we know it during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Brubaker and Epting bring the same calibre of craftsmanship to this book that they’ve been displaying on Captain America for the last few years; the love, care and attention to detail that have made that title consistently the best superhero comic Marvel are currently publishing are fully in evidence here. Much as I love the old Invaders and Howling Commandos books it’s undeniably thrilling seeing a more mature and intelligent approach applied to this era, whether it’s expanding on the prologue of Marvels or witnessing a righteously pissed off Sub-Mariner extracting vengeance on a Nazi vessel dropping devastating depth charges on Atlantis. The art sees some of Epting’s best work yet; his evocation of the period is magnificent with Dave Stewart’s colours lending the panels a convincing historical hue. A superb debut. 10/10

Proof may be below many people’s radar, but weaving the real-life oddity Julia Pastrana into its universe provided the title with not only its best storyline, but also the best single issue of the entire run.

PROOF #23 (review originally published 13/09/2009)
Writer: Alex Grecian
Art: Riley Rossmo
Image $3.50

Matt C: A bit of a cheat here: I know this book was actually released last week, but I didn’t get around to reading it before last week’s reviews were posted, and as it turned out to be the best single issue I’ve read for a little while, well, it more than deserved a mention. The Julia storyline has been pretty special, the highpoint of the series so far, but this finale was something else entirely. It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in a while a comic will come along that virtually knocks you down with its emotional force. You wouldn’t think that a tale where someone’s intestines are wound out by a medieval torture device could be so moving, but damn if this issue of Proof didn’t tug hard on the heartstrings. Grecian and Rossmo (along with colourist Dave Casey) have been producing a solid, offbeat and immensely likeable series for the past couple of years, but here we see them kick things up to another level entirely. A beautiful piece of work. 10/10

With so many high points it’s incredibly difficult to pick just one issue to highlight; if I weren’t restricting myself to just one mention for a title in this list, there’s a good chance the entire Top 10 would be made up of issues of Scalped!

SCALPED #25 (review originally published 15/02/2009)
Writer: Jason Aaron
Art: R.M. Guera
DC/Vertigo $2.99

Matt C: A new character is introduced in this opening chapter of the High Lonesome storyline, and whether his name really is Moses Johnson, or whether that’s another of his multiple aliases doesn’t matter: after being subjected to his vile, ugly, fucked-up thoughts throughout the issue, all that matters is the knowledge that he’s a nasty piece of work. He’s a con man, a hustler and a murderer, and the way he manoeuvres himself into the world of Red Crow and Dashiell Bad Horse is brilliantly executed. This title continues to go from strength to strength as it puts the darker side of human nature under the microscope. Sublime. 10/10

A real delight, and its always reassuring to find something new in the medium that has charm and appeal without relying on spandex and capes. I look forward to more of this series in 2010.

THE STUFF OF LEGEND #1 (review originally published 02/08/2009)
Writers: Mike Raicht & Brian Smith
Art: Charles Paul Wilson III
Th3rd World Studios $4.99

Matt C: This is when Free Comic Book Day really does it’s job – I didn’t pick up the sampler of this book in my initial batch of freebies but a copy came into my possession shortly afterwards and I was quite smitten with the contents. Unsurprisingly the first issue proper is just as impressive, containing the previously published prologue along with the first two chapters of the story as we follow the cast of children’s toys into the realm of the Boogeyman to rescue their young owner. Set in Brooklyn in 1944, it cleverly parallels the nations mood as the toys debate venturing into the unknown to fight evil, while at the same time playing on childhood fears of what might be lurking behind closed doors or underneath the bed. As with all the best tales aimed at a younger audience it avoids sugarcoating its darker elements thus making it a much more appealing proposition for older readers. It’s superbly illustrated, with its sepia tones providing a sheen of realism to a world where toys come to life when no one’s looking. If Tim Burton directed Toy Story it might have looked a little bit like this. 9/10

Vertigo suddenly seem to be on a roll again with an impressive array of new series (including Sweet Tooth and Daytripper). This is the pick of the bunch though: relentlessly intelligent and endlessly thrilling, this is quite possibly Mike Carey’s best work to date.

THE UNWRITTEN #1 (review originally published 17/05/2009)
Writer: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross
DC/Vertigo $1.00

Matt C: This isn’t something that would normally appeal to me as it plays with a genre I don’t really care for (magic) and riffs on a franchise I only have marginal interest in (Harry Potter). If I’m honest, even though I appreciate Mike Carey is an intelligent and culturally savvy writer, not everything I’ve read of his has really clicked with me, so the real reason this became a must-buy was the price tag. Forty pages for a buck (about 70p in our English money)? You’ve really got to give it a shot for that price. And damn, was it a great buy! The premise is intriguing, but not quite a showstopper (and, let’s face it, not that original), but what Carey does with it is quite ingenious. There’s the humanity he brings to his characters, the astute take on celebrity culture, the metatextual elements he plays with, all presented to the reader with a dash of sly wit. Gross’s is art is deceptively simple in places, with its economical linework, but the range of emotions he brings out of the cast is impressive. Listen, obviously no comic is ever going to appeal to everyone, but fans are always on the lookout for something new, always looking for the next book that will knock their socks off. You may think The Unwritten is an astounding example of what the genre is capable of, you may think it’s pile of crap, but at this price you’d be a fool not to pick it up and make up your own mind. For my part, this is the best debut from Vertigo since Scalped. 9/10

A powerful miniseries that was far away from a regular X-book as you could imagine. The ‘masterpiece’ comment carries even more weight now than it did then.

X-MEN: MAGNETO TESTAMENT #5 (review originally published 06/02/2009)
Writer: Greg Pak
Art: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Marvel $3.99

Matt C: It’s not an easy read, it’s not a fun read, but it’s probably the bravest thing Marvel have published over the last few years, and it’s powerful enough in both the subject matter and the telling that, although the sales figures may not have been stellar, it’s going to have a shelf life that will far exceed many of its contemporaries. I anticipate revisiting X-Men: Magneto Testament in its entirety in the not too distant future because, while each single issue has been outstanding piece of serial storytellling, I have a feeling that, looking at it as a whole, it’s possibly something close to a masterpiece. 10/10

Stewart R’s Top 10 Of 2009

I’m not sure if the creators realized just how popular this title would prove to be but the dark powered edge to this crime comic has shot it to the top of many a pull-list, including mine.

CHEW #1 (review originally published 07/06/2009)
Writer: John Layman
Art: Rob Guillory
Image $2.99

Stewart R: This stood out for me a few months back when I plucked it out for a Previews choice, and my anticipation has finally been met head-on with the sweet smell of success. This is a great first issue from Layman and Guillory: their protagonist is Tony Chu, a vice cop with cibopathic abilities – he sees the past history of everything he eats – and here he finds himself staking out a speakeasy with a twist. Chicken has been banned as a food stuff since an outbreak of bird flu caused the deaths of millions of avian digesting Americans. Throw in a jerkwad partner, a mysterious FDA agent and a pinch of serial killer, stir, cook over 25-26 pages, and you have a delightfully slick filling with a beautifully artistic crust. Guillory throws literally everything at the page: a huge splash here, a neat repetition of panels there, close-ups and even a little thermo-imaging should the need arise. This promises to be a truly gritty detective story with a few laughs thrown in for good measure and I'm really looking forward to the second instalment. 9/10

Robert Kirkman tried his hand at a MAX title and brought Cory Walker and his pencils along for the ride to deliver a brutally entertaining look at what it’s like to have one foot in the grave as a hero.

DESTROYER #5 (review originally published 09/08/2009)
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Art: Cory Walker
Marvel/MAX $3.99

Stewart R: With Destroyer carving his way through his own rogues gallery with lethal intensity over the previous four instalments I was unsure as to how Robert Kirkman would round out this highly enjoyable miniseries. Issue #5 demonstrates a writer working with ideas clearly and concisely and never overstepping his goal on delivering a vision to the audience. While Keene has had his adversaries throughout, the ultimate showdown was always going to be with death itself and it’s handled in a fashion that sits perfectly with the feel that this title has been aiming for. As expected Keene Marlowe refuses to go down without a fight and that brings an edgy, black-comedy atmosphere to this final showdown. Cory Walker’s art on this run has been nothing short of a triumph and he now sits firmly in my list of artists to watch. With all five issues in the bag I say to you now, trawl through the long-boxes at your local comic shop and pick this up in its entirety. Any illusions that this wasn’t going to be any good have been well and truly destroyed! 9/10

His Man of Action duties seem to have left this incredibly interesting title hanging on a hiatus line, but what Duncan Rouleau provided was intriguing to say the least. Do us a favour Duncan and get it finished… please?

THE GREAT UNKNOWN #1 (review originally published 22/02/2009)
Writer: Duncan Rouleau
Art: Duncan Rouleau
Image $3.50

Stewart R: Duncan Rouleau has been responsible for some of my favourite comic work over the past few years both in ideas and delivery. With The Great Unknown he's tackling the themes of idea ownership and of lost potential and he is tackling them very well indeed. Usually I would spout on and on about Rouleau's talent with pencil and pen and while his hand here is strong it's ultimately his brain, and particularly his character work, that shines through. Zach Feld is the unfulfilled potential of Generation X wrapped up into one superbly over-confident, brilliantly unenthused and possibly exploited drop-out. It's him against the world as far as he's concerned and just when he thinks he might be onto a winning strategy he's always mysteriously second best. Rouleau seems to be addressing issues which he has an interest in and even brings the pointlessness of reality television in for the briefest of laughs. Set it all against a palette of black, blue and the occasional splash of yellow and you've got my stylish book of the week. 9/10.

Blackest Night and Green Lantern seem to be where all the ‘main action’ is taking place but I’ve found the periphery to be a little more absorbing and Guy’s transformation was a true highlight in what has been a terrific year for the Corps comic.

GREEN LANTERN CORPS #43 (review originally published 20/12/2009)
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman & Tom Nguyen
DC $2.99

Stewart R: Truly wonderful stuff from Tomasi and Gleason this week as Guy Gardner’s transformation into a Red Lantern of Rage is realised following Kyle Rayner’s heroic sacrifice last time out. This book is filled to the brim with emotion - as befits a title linked to the Blackest Night event – and the level of tension is certainly palpable, ensuring that single every page is unmissable. Tomasi has been able to manoeuvre certain characters not involved in the main BN story into position on Oa and the involvement of Star Sapphire Miri and Yellow Lantern Kryb keeps the cast varied and the story unpredictable. Gleason delivers some truly breathtaking work with Guy’s initial ‘conscription’ and subsequent attack on the Black Lanterns being the giddying high point. I have to say that if you’re thinking of dropping any other $2.99 title at the moment then you should definitely start investing that money into this incredibly entertaining comic. 10/10

Abnett and Lanning have made every loss to this team feel very real and painful this year but it was this issue that truly defined their purpose in the increasingly crazy space-ways and star-lanes. Setting them out as intergalactic agents of peace and environmental activists was a stroke of genius.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY #13 (review originally published 26/04/2009)
Writer: Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Art: Brad Walker & Victor Olazaba
Marvel $2.99

Stewart R: Page 17. That’s almost all that I need to say. Page 17 of this issue is the best page that I have read this week. Nine simple panels, two great characters and a clear indication that Abnett and Lanning know that adding a touch of humour to the mix in an ongoing title can really work wonders. Thanks to the various books embroiled in the War of Kings it’s become clear that there are no clear-cut ‘right and wrong’ sides to this conflict and the Guardians angle as protectors of the nature and fabric of space itself is really interesting. The fleshed out Guardians roster could possibly indicate that there will be casualties during the war, but hopefully not too numerous. Walker delivers some delightful pencilwork and can mix his layout style to suit the situation with skill. This issue is a triumph and not just because Groot finally gets a debriefing log at long, long last! 10/10

Certainly the greatest use of ‘sound’ in a comic that I have ever seen. Period. Nuff said.

INCREDIBLE HERCULES #136 (review originally published 18/10/2009)
Writers: Greg Pak & Fred Van Lente
Art: Reilly Brown & Nelson DeCastro
Marvel $2.99

Stewart R: The two-issues-a-month formula is still going strong and working very well indeed. This time we’re back with Herc and his childish father, Zeus, as they try to prevent the Dark Elf Hordes from invading the kingdoms of the world. There is a terrifically funny and entertaining punch-up between Hercules (masquerading as Thor) and Thor (masquerading as Hercules) as the Prince of Power’s initial duping of the Elvish Queen Alflyse is maintained for as long as possible. Pak and Van Lente really seem to appreciate that Herc is a true hero who can cross some moral and comedy boundaries in order to be the best that he can be. They also appear to be acutely aware that Thor and Herc have punched each other about the place before and they needed to come up with something fresh this time around. Here they display that knowledge perfectly with an outstanding and gut-bustingly funny fight which employs a manner of playground tactics to get the guffaws a-bellowing from your lungs while dissecting just what makes Herc the legend that he is. Reilly Brown’s talent as an artist really ups the comedic edge and the range of facial expressions that he can produce is particularly noteworthy. Great work from everyone involved. 9/10

I truly believe that Fraction may be the man to turn things around for the House of Ideas after Bendis’ rather heavy-handed approach to all-things Marvel. His work on this title, and this issue in particular, shows the man’s talent at bringing plot lines together cohesively and with superb tension.

INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #19 (review originally published 25/10/2009)
Writer: Matt Fraction
Art: Salvador Larroca
Marvel $3.99

Stewart R: Mr Fraction appears to have been wearing some magic Hat of Writing Excellence for the past two years – either that or he might just have been damn talented from the get-go! I truly suspect it is the latter. This was as perfect an ending to the Most Wanted arc as a reader could ask for and doesn’t cap off the story with a big fat full stop but instead drops in a delicious comma at the end, meaning that you’ll definitely be back to see what happens next. The characterization of Victoria Hand slowly beginning to crack under the pressure of looking after the most psychotic VIP on the planet is terrific and there’s certainly scope for expansion on that plot point. Fraction manages to reach a crescendo that people were anticipating in this title and while the Osborn vs Stark confrontation skirts along clich├ęd lines for the briefest of times, it fits so well into the giant puzzle of Tony’s plan that it’s instantly forgivable. Larroca, as always, brings his A-game to the table and to be honest I’m struggling to think of a time when the Iron Man armours have been drawn with such brilliant dynamism. Get the Most Wanted arc in trade when available if you’re late to the party and jump onboard next issue. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 10/10

Boom! Studios can be very proud of what they have achieved these past twelve months and Unthinkable wins my vote for miniseries of the year. Terrifically well thought out and Tedesco is one talented artist to watch for.

UNTHINKABLE #1 (review originally published 17/05/2009)
Writer: Mark Sable
Art: Julian Totino Tedesco
Boom! Studios $3.99

Stewart R: In order to predict the terrorist events of the future a Think Tank is put together in order to establish all of the implausible, impossible, unthinkable scenarios that could confront the United States and the rest of the world in a post 9/11 society. Nothing is discounted and the possibilities are endless. This is a terrific premise alone but the comic that Mark Sable has then delivered is just as accomplished. The sibling relationship of the Ripley brothers (Steven’s an embittered military veteran who’s seen some of the worst that terrorism has to offer, Alan is his novelist brother who twists Steven’s experiences to fit the page and screen for the almighty dollar) aptly displays the paranoia and mistrust that the 21st century can succumb to. Once the World Trade Centre attack is factored in and the Ripley family suffers a loss the story picks up with the aforementioned Think Tank and it’s clear that Sable has thought long and hard on how something like this could pan out.

There’s promising character development while keeping the pacing brisk and resisting the urge to fall into a deep protracted analysis of past, real world events. Tedesco’s artwork is impeccable, delivering quick and explosive action where necessary and I’m really impressed with his great emotional characterization throughout. This is one conspiracy theory title that I will definitely be picking up the second issue of. 9/10

Abnett and Lanning appear once more in my Top 10 with their superb introduction to the Marvel-based conflict of the year. Paul Pelletier’s work is immense and this is one of the best examples of an artist understanding how to get the best from what the writer’s have given him.

WAR OF KINGS #1 (review originally published 08/03/2009)
Writers: Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Art: Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar
Marvel $3.99

Stewart R: What a start to the series proper! The Shi'ar bring the battle to the Inhuman-led Kree in one mighty issue of cosmic quality. The months of preparatory work that DnA have put into the various space-based stories has led to this brutal opener and it's a wonderful read from beginning to end. Crystal's marriage to Ronan the Accuser was never going to have an easy start but to have a wedding day this disastrous?? Abnett and Lanning set the pace at brisk, reminding us of previous events in character conversation and moving forward with a neat inner-dialogue by Gladiator as he leads the new Imperial Guard into battle. Pelletier does a magnificent job throughout with wonderful full-page splashes with the odd special touch here and there (the flowers and blossoms in and amongst the panels of the wedding day - nice!) and Quintana's colours give the whole thing a polished, classic look. I simply cannot wait for the next five issues to arrive! 10/10

Kyle and Yost have made this book their own, but by taking brief, measured glimpses at what being a member of X-Force is doing to X-23 they’ve raised it to another level. Here they subject her to some nasty situations and my eyes were glued to the page from start to finish.

X-FORCE #20 (review originally published 01/11/2009)
Writers: Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost
Art: Mike Choi & Sonia Oback
Marvel $2.99

Stewart R: X-23 has been used as a vicious tool of death by these writers for most of this X-Force run, but they have on occasion given us glimpses of Laura’s caring side and delicate psyche while also expanding on Wolverine’s strangely paternal instincts towards her. This has ensured that while X-Force shifts from blood-soaked page to blood-soaked page, it's really all about the loyalty and camaraderie that the team-mates have for each other as they tread their dark paths. X-23’s capture by the Facility and near-successful rescue by Agent Morales has been a captivating read as the one enemy that Laura can’t apparently hurt or kill tries her best to extract an excruciating revenge upon her. The pages where the Trigger Scent fills X-23 with bloodlust are a true triumph of brutal comic storytelling and Choi and Oback should be very proud of the artwork on show here. When you couple such action with the emotionally tinged scenes at the end with Morales and Laura, you can stamp the ‘Success’ mark squarely across the cover. 9/10

1 comment:

Justin Giampaoli said...

Some great picks guys, I particularly enjoyed those issues of Scalped and Invincible Iron Man.