Greetings, culture lovers. As I write this, I’m smack in the middle of what seems like the first real vacation for your humble professor in years and years. However, because I’m too neurotic to break “The Streak” (every Wednesday since 2003, don’t you know), I’m putting aside the figgy pudding and leftover turkey sandwiches for a return to our annual tradition of looking back on the year that was in comics. And make sure to come back next week for a Big Announcement about the future of Comics 101 and what’s in store for 2012. And don’t worry: it’s all good news.
Now, to the categories, shall we?
BEST SURPRISE — ULTIMATE COMICS SPIDER-MAN, by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli
When I heard the news that Marvel would be killing off the Ultimate version of Peter Parker and replacing him with a new Spider-Man, the news didn’t really faze me one way or the other. I’ve become pretty jaded with comic-book deaths, as have we all, and since Ultimate Spidey wasn’t really “my” Spidey, it didn’t have much of an impact on me. Little did I know that ULTIMATE COMICS SPIDER-MAN would rapidly become one of the books I look forward to the most every month, thanks both to Bendis’ clever scripting and the beautiful art of Sara Pichelli, who’s given new Spider-Man Miles Morales a sensitivity and heart that I’d never expected. This is one of those very rare occasions where the book lives up to and even surpasses the initial hype. Here’s hoping for a long, long run from Bendis and Pichelli, as long as the original Ultimate Spidey run at least.
THE ANTICLIMAX AWARD — FEAR ITSELF, by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen
When you do these big companywide event series, they have to have repercussions, and in recent years, Marvel’s been pretty good about delivering on that. The Marvel Universe post-CIVIL WAR was different from the Marvel Universe post-SECRET INVASION, which was different from the Marvel Universe post-SIEGE. Unfortunately, FEAR ITSELF didn’t quite live up to those standards. After seven issues and countless crossovers of various Marvel heroes and villains getting brainwashed by magic hammers, what exactly happened? Well, Thor died, but then came back to life almost immediately. Bucky Barnes died, then came back to life almost immediately. Iron Man got drunk, but he seems fine now. And the city of Paris was destroyed, but was restored almost immediately. The whole thing feels a little moot, to be honest.
BEST COLLECTED EDITION — POGO: THROUGH THE WILD BLUE YONDER, edited by Carolyn Kelly and Kim Thompson
This is a bit of a sentimental favorite, I’ll admit. But with my two other favorite newspaper strips of all time, CALVIN & HOBBES and BLOOM COUNTY, already fully collected in beautiful hardcover editions, all that was needed for me was a complete hardbound edition of Walt Kelly’s POGO on my bookshelf, and Fantagraphics has delivered with this first volume of 12 that will encompass the entirety of the strip’s twenty-five-year run. But just the fact that it exists isn’t enough to get it on the list over so much of the fantastic work that IDW has been doing with their Library of American Comics imprint. No, THROUGH THE WILD BLUE YONDER is an extremely well-put-together package, featuring not only the first two years of Walt Kelly’s sharply funny, touching and beautifully drawn strip, but also reproductions of all the Sunday strips in full color, as well as scans from the original art that show off Kelly’s marvelous brushwork; as has been said many times, no one drew a tree like Walt Kelly. Go buy the first volume, and make room behind it for the next eleven.
BEST RETURN — TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, by Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz and Dan Duncan
The Turtles came back in a big way this year in their new series at IDW Publishing, which rebooted the series from its earlier Mirage Studios and Image iterations, and did so to near-universal acclaim. While the series may have started from scratch, the tone still feels exactly right, thanks no doubt to the guiding hand of Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman keeping the book on track, as well as to writer Tom Waltz, who has really come into his own on this series, really closely capturing the voices of the four Turtles and their master Splinter from the way I remember them in the original Eastman/Laird comics. And Dan Duncan’s art melds the gritty feel of the black-and-white books with the fun cartooniness of the animated series. Special attention should be paid to issue #5, which explains the Turtles’ backstory in an all-new fashion, and does so it in an exceedingly touching way. It’s one of my favorite comics of the year.
THE FINGERS CROSSED AWARD — THE SHADE
When the first issue of THE SHADE came out, I have to admit, it left me a little cold. Cully Hamner’s art didn’t really capture the ornate charm of Opal City the way Tony Harris or Peter Snejbjerg did, but the larger problem was the script: the characters just felt off to me, particularly the Shade himself. And seeing the “New 52” version of Deathstroke intrude into the first issue’s finale really worried me, as if this long-promised return to the world of STARMAN was about to be sacrificed to the new continuity. However, the second and third issues have come as much a relief, with characters like the Shade, Hope O’Dare and Bobo Bennetti now sounding much more faithful to my ear, and all references to the new DC universe having fallen by the wayside. And while I’m still not completely won over by the art, it’s been improving with every issue. There’s been talk that sales have been slow, and that the series’ 12-issue run may be shortened. Help make sure that doesn’t happen; go out and pick these issues up.
BEST ONGOING SERIES — FF, by Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting
Not since the days of Lee/Kirby and later John Byrne has FANTASTIC FOUR been so innovative and so consistently satisfying. The much-publicized killing off of Johnny Storm did exactly what it was meant to do: bring in a new audience to an underrated book and expose them to the kind of first-rate storytelling Hickman and Epting has been doing for the last couple of years. Hickman’s work here is reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s run on JLA, the kind of breakneck plotting with each idea bigger than the last, but anchored by a strong sense of character. And unlike the anticlimaxes mentioned above, when Johnny Storm recently returned to the team, it meant something, thanks both to Hickman and Epting’s stellar storytelling, and the fact that they had the discipline to wait a year to do it. While I’d hate to see this team go anywhere, with the recent news that Bendis will be leaving the Avengers after 2012, I can’t think of a better replacement.
Scott Tipton is enjoying his vacation. If you have questions about comics, send them here.