Friday, March 23, 2012

12. 6 Comics You Must Read

So... I've never been the kind of guy who could keep myself to 6 comics a month. In fact, when it comes to budgeting for comics, I've generally been in the "budget? What budget? I have to have that Absolute edition!" category. But just as a thought exercise, if I had to pick only 6 comics per month to buy, I'd probably try to spread the wealth amongst 6 different companies, and right now, here's what I'd pick:

1. DC - Suicide Squad - I talked about this in my New 52 post, and nothing's changed. In fact, the two-part Harley Quinn story has done nothing but reinforce my love for this comic. It's almost nothing like the classic Suicide Squad comic that is one of my favorites of all time, other than featuring Deadshot and Amanda Waller (albeit as very different versions of themselves), but it's a great take on the "Dirty Dozen with supervillains" concept. Darkly funny, with fantastic art, and a real sense of danger for the characters. 

2. Vertigo - American Vampire - Yes, I know this is technically also DC. Shut up. It's a toss-up for me between this and Unwritten, but I think the violent history of vampires through the lens of American history wins out over the literary fantasy. Both are great books, but if I got a new trade of Unwritten and a new hardcover of American Vampire on the same day, I know I'd read American Vampire first. The World War II era stories were particularly great, but I'm looking forward to the '50s era story when it comes to hardcover soon.

3. Marvel - Daredevil - Man, there's nothing even close. I'm really digging Wolverine and the X-Men, Winter Soldier is off to a good start, I'm sure there are others, but Daredevil is like a master class on how comics should be done. I wish every Marvel comic was more like it, satisfying in single issues and yet building nicely upon itself to tell a bigger story, with great characters, interesting plots, a fantastic use of the elements of the Marvel Universe we usually don't see in Daredevil (Moloids? Klaw?). It manages to be witty and light, but without being simply goofy or lacking any weight at all. Mark Waid is writing at the top of his game here, and the artists he's got are amazing guys working at the top of theirs as well. Can't wait to see Chris Samnee come aboard.

4. Image - Chew - This one's tougher. There are a lot of great new contenders at Image, including Thief of Thieves, Saga, Hell Yeah and Fatale, but none of them have established themselves quite yet, and so Chew remains my favorite. It's got an amazing "can't easily describe it" premise, which doesn't usually work, but the strange mix of food-related super-powers, conspiracies, aliens, vampires (sort of) and more is grounded by Layman's strong characters and a sense that while the reader probably doesn't know where they're going, Layman definitely does. Plus, Rob Guillory's art is completely unique in the market, and without his sensibilities, I don't think the book would work half as well. Thank goodness Vertigo passed, because working in that darker, Vertigo style wouldn't have served this unusual story in the same way.

5. Dark Horse - BPRD - This is technically cheating, as these are a series of miniseries rather than an ongoing, but the book has been coming out pretty much monthly for years now and features a continuing series, so I think it counts. It's a toss-up between this and Usagi Yojimbo, and that was a really tough call, but I've been in BPRD mode of late, having caught up on the Hell on Earth series and picked up the latest Plague of Frogs hardcover. John Arcudi and Mike Mignola have done a great job of making the BPRD characters stand tall without Hellboy, and they're telling big epic stories where characters grow, change and even die (and stay dead) and the artwork has been top notch. When Guy Davis left, I was a little worried, but replacements like Tyler Crook and James Harren have been fantastic.

6. Oni Press - Sixth Gun - This is an edit (there were originally 5 books), which is kinda embarrassing because Sixth Gun is actually probably my second favorite book going right now, right behind Daredevil. At any rate, horror + western has been good for a lot of comics, but the Sixth Gun is my favorite comic to combine western and supernatural elements. It's got a broader scope than most horror westerns, in that it's more like supernatural adventure, blending elements of high fantasy like quests and magic weapons in nicely with demonic beings and the undead. And the characters and world-building done here is second to none. Throw in fantastic artwork by Brian Hurtt and you've got a great book.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

11. Saga #1 and Why I'm So Glad Brian K. Vaughan is back in comics

Wow, haven't used these particular writing muscles in a while.

A great first issue is a rare and wondrous thing. Especially rare and wondrous when it's wholly new, creator-owned and unexpected. Saga is two of those things, although "unexpected" doesn't really seem fair, since the expectations on Brian "Y the Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways" Vaughan aren't exactly small. But a sweeping sci-fi/fantasy epic from Image? That's something new and different, and there was every chance that one of my favorite writers in comics might stumble.

Good news. He didn't. In fact, he and artist Fiona Staples have created a promising, ambitious and gorgeous new world that I can't wait to explore further. Saga blends together big ideas like magic, blasters, robots, intergalactic war with smaller, character-based notions like family, loyalty, honor and hope in one hell of a first issue.

Vaughan has a history of strong characters and a light, approachable touch even with heavy subject matter like politics, post-apocalypse or coming of age when your parents are super-villains (OK, that last one's not universal) and that continues in Saga. The galaxy is at war, as two different races have expanded their war beyond their own planets to battle by proxy on other planets, there's a real sense that this war has deep history and could go on forever, with no real victors, and yet, the simple struggle of a mismatched couple to provide a better life for their new child feels hope-filled and full of potential for adventure. You know how Star Wars starts out with Luke's family being murdered by stormtroopers, and it's kinda horrible, but at the same time you see this kid who always wanted to see the universe finally being given the chance, and learning that he has a heroic legacy he never knew about? It's kinda like that. The baby (who's narrating the story from the future) is born in death and carnage, on the run from the very second she comes into the world, and yet, there's this sense that her parents have a big, amazing adventure ahead of them.

The mix of ideas here is worthy of Grant Morrison at his best, with TV-headed robots co-existing alongside fantasy creatures, "Heartbreaker" guns that wound by bringing up painful memories, giant monsters, spaceships, old school maps with things like "The Uncanny Bridge" on them, etc. The story ranges from metropolis-like sci-fi cities to caves and sewers, and while many a would-be story alchemist has faltered trying to blend science-fiction and fantasy, so far Staples and Vaughan are producing the best of both worlds.

Speaking of Staples, I have to admit that my first reaction to previews of her art was not entirely positive. I was used to the photo-real work of Tony Harris, the solid realism of Pia Guerra, the anime-influenced stylized work of Adrian Alphona, and Staples' work was entirely different. I realize now that this is not at all a bad thing, and she is of course perfect for this book. Her ability to design such a wide variety of creatures, characters and technologies is no small part of why the fantasy/sci-fi mix works as well as it does. And her characters are very expressive, from the grin Alana shows off when she displays her pistol to the pained look of Marko as the forces are killed all around them early on. This book is about big ideas and big moments, but it's going to live or die on the reactions of the characters, and in that regard, Staples absolutely shines.

Here's something else. In comics these days, it's often the case the even good single issues feel a bit slight. Marvel and DC are both doing 20-page books, and a lot of creators use either decompression or a standard of writing where they spread their tale across a 5- or 6-issue arc, and some of the individual issues feel a bit slight. There's every possibility this could happen over the course of Saga, but in 44 pages, this story felt massive. The world is introduced, as are a half-dozen characters, the heart of the story is nailed down in one simple bit of dialogue ("I want to show our girl the universe") and there's a nice, self-contained romance story told in the course of these pages.

For me, Saga #1 had a lot of expectations riding on it, due to Vaughan's pedigree and Image's strong rate of success with new books of late. I'm happy to say that it exceeded those expectations at every turn. Cannot wait to see where the story goes from here.

Saga #1 releases on Wednesday, March 14th. You can see a 4-page preview (which doesn't even begin to do it justice) here.