My 13 Favorite Things of 2009: Summary (Part 17 of 17)

My 13 Favorite Things

Wasteland (Oni Press): “Holding this brick of fiction in your hands you realize at long last that the scale and gravitas of the object delighting your senses finally tangibly reflects the scale of the immense writing talent that spawned it. Yup, big ideas belong in big books.”

Echo (Abstract Studio): “If you want to understand how to make effective comic books in every aspect of their production, watch Terry Moore a while, and look no further than Echo.”

Invincible Iron Man (Marvel): "Yeah, I think I just said that Matt Fraction is the Jamie Foxx of comic books, whatever the fuck that means.”

Scalped (DC/Vertigo): “I’ve been saying all along that I want to see this on HBO. It’s no slam against our beloved comic book medium, it’s simply a testament to the fact that Scalped is deserving of a more widespread audience, one in the millions and not the tens of thousands.”

The Hot Breath of War (Sparkplug Comics): "My personal desire to see more of his work has only emboldened with this divergent tale that disproves the artistic notion of a sophomore slump.”

A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly): "Tatsumi is that rare artist who doesn’t preach a message, but invites you to consider your own thoughts about whatever subject matter he’s become fascinated and inspired by, and that process lends a timeless and enduring quality to his work.”

Northlanders (DC/Vertigo): “It is poised to redefine the genre.”

Detective Comics (DC): “This is mainstream superhero comics at its finest.”

Dark Reign: Zodiac (Marvel): “We should have all paid more attention to this quiet little coup d’etat. Because these guys? These guys are the future.”

Wednesday Comics (DC): “There were sure hits (Strange Adventures), and sure blunders (Teen Titans), and noble failures somewhere in between (Wonder Woman), but like Solo before it, the project conceptually was brilliant and should be encouraged.”

Asterios Polyp (Pantheon): “It’ll probably go down as a, if not the, book of the year when everyone’s lists are finally submitted and the larger meta-lists are tabulated.”

Aya: The Secrets Come Out (Drawn & Quarterly): “If inherent quality of craft were the true driver of fame and success, then the multi-part saga of Aya should catapult these creators to stardom, or at the very least – prolific future projects and enhanced recognition at the Eisner Awards.”

Abhay Khosla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “If that doesn’t make any sense, it’s because Khosla’s writing isn’t just on another level, it’s from an entirely different dimension, and I don’t possess the critical vocabulary necessary to explain it, much less deconstruct its origins or articulate why it’s so successful in execution.”

Honorable Mentions

Driven by Lemons (AdHouse Books): “If only it were a bit more accessible, like its great forerunner Skyscrapers of the Midwest.”

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man (Dark Horse): “Bottom line, pretty frickin’ good, but not quite the intricate achievements that I felt 2 Sisters or especially the superb Super Spy were.”

I Am Legion (DDP/Humanoids): “It won’t be remembered as one of Cassaday’s most popular books, but it is certainly one of his best.”

The Lone Ranger (Dynamite Entertainment): “It’s one of the best examples of a book whose narrative momentum and ultimate greatness is hampered by the floppy serialized format and would function better as a series of OGN’s.”

Luna Park (DC/Vertigo): “Kevin Baker’s debut work in the comic book industry remains a flawed, but deeply engaging read.”

Special Prize

JLA: Cry for Justice (DC): “It was so bad, it was good.”

My (Not So) Favorite Things

Sea Donkey: “If you worked for me in any of the jobs I’ve ever had and brought that same disgruntled befuddled ennui to the table, that general penchant for caca, I’d have fired you long ago.”

The X-Titles Flounder: “It’s been a slow, lazy spiral toward the drain, with occasional bursts of brilliance and beauty like Uncanny X-Men #512 with Yanick Paquette.”

Comic Foundry Goes Bust: “Oh, Comic Foundry. We’ll always have that Jonathan Lethem interview that led me back to Omega: The Unknown.”

Amazing Spider-Man #583 & All It Symbolizes: “1992 called and it wanted the lesson you were already supposed to have learned back.”

I Shouldn’t Complain, but Paul Pope…: “I suppose art takes time and that I should be thankful for the awesome Adam Strange story that largely made Wednesday Comics for me, but damn if it’s hard not to be greedy and feel like the ultimate First Second Pulp Hope c--k tease was in effect this year.”

Expectations Not Met: “There were a few titles that just didn’t live up to my hopes right out of the gate.”

Late, Stalled, Delayed, Postponed, On Hiatus: “Oh, is this book still being published?”

Warren Ellis: “By my totally subjective non-scientific personal arsebiscuit guesstimation, he only “hit” about 40% of the time.”

That, my friends, is 2009 in a nutshell according to 13 Minutes. As I write this, I’ve also just surpassed a personal web traffic milestone. 13 Minutes typically ranges anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 hits per month, with occasional spikes from things like an Antony Johnston tweet or a link from a CBR article. This month, it was the perfect storm; the combination of people’s love of searching for lists and my end of the year “Favorite 13” posts, my conversation with Ryan Claytor about the relationship between creators and critics, a well-timed tweet from Brian Wood regarding a Northlanders review, and plenty of referral hits from Poopsheet Foundation, which all conspired to push 13 Minutes over the 10,000 hit mark for the first time ever. I thought that was a pretty cool way to end the year and wanted to take a moment to say thanks to everyone who visits. See you next year!


Best Mini-Comics & Small Press Titles of 2009 @ Poopsheet Foundation

Check out my picks for the year over at Poopsheet Foundation.

My 13 (Not So) Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 16 of 17)

Sea Donkey: I don’t really want to rehash all of Good Ol’ Sea Donk’s fuck ups this year, but suffice it to say there are certain things successful retailers do, and His Donkeyness doesn’t do very many of those. When I walk into any LCS, I just want a few things. I want it to be clean and well lit. I want it to be organized. I want some depth and breadth of selection. I want some consistency. I want to attend a meaningful sale once in a while. I want the staff to be able to interact with other humans and be fairly knowledgeable about the wares they’re hocking. And when it comes to attitude, I just expect you to be professional and courteous and appreciative of the fact that I am handing you my money, when I could easily be giving it to another. The demeanor you display should reassure me that you actually willingly chose this as a profession and are trying to sustain a profitable business endeavor, it should not give me the impression that customer service is a lost art, that creating as many fire code violations as possible is your true calling, or that you were just a guy with a stained Warrant t-shirt two sizes too small who had 10 long boxes full of ROM: Space Knight and Warriors of Plasm, thought it’d be so damn cool to have a place to hang out, and now you’re stuck doing something you really don’t like and aren’t very good at in the first place. This behavior wouldn’t fly anywhere else, my friend. If you worked for me in any of the jobs I’ve ever had and brought that same disgruntled befuddled ennui to the table, that general penchant for caca, I’d have fired you long ago. No second chances, no confusing effort with results, no government bailout, do not pass go, do not collect $200 for that dodgy Emma Frost bust, no more swindling old ladies for Amazing Spider-Man #583, no more cluttering up my planet with bent up cardboard cutouts of Edward & Bella, and no more overpriced Admiral Ackbar Mighty Muggs – just vacuum the floor, open on time, give me my fucking copy of Wasteland #25 on the day it’s supposed to come out, smile, say thanks, and carry on, oh diligent shopkeeper – it’s survival of the fittest, pure capitalism at work, and the retarded antics of your perpetual Sea Donkey Dance of Retailing Destruction just ain’t cuttin’ it. My greatest fear is that I’ll become so conditioned to this behavior that it will normalize, that I’ll be so close to it as to lose my objectivity. The absurdity will be so normal, I’ll no longer find it absurd. I’ll be just like those Romero-inspired zombies, lurching toward the 1970’s strip mall every Wednesday blind to what’s wrong and what’s become of me. Please don’t let that be my fate…

The X-Titles Flounder: After enjoying the first arc of X-Force, I was happy to accept it as a little guilty pleasure. The book had many detractors, but I thought Chris Yost and Craig Kyle managed a fun cast, decent action, and could occasionally turn a clever phrase in the dialogue department. Clayton Crain had zero fans from what I could tell, but I defended his dark murky style as consistent with the book’s morally flexible subject matter; and even the fill-in artists grew on me eventually. Where it all started to go south was when I found myself actually excited about the Messiah War crossover with Cable, wherein Bishop hunts Cable and Hope in the future, as X-Force is sent in by Scott to aid them, complete with a Deadpool appearance. Oh, what the hell was I thinking? And now it’s X-Necrosha? Are you kidding me? Did I get sucked back into 1992 for the X-Cutioner’s Song? Stupid me for thinking otherwise, but not only was there absolutely zero forward plot motion or resolution with the crossover, but the book really lost direction after that. I quickly dropped it, disgusted with myself for falling for the ruse, and it’s been relegated to my non-essential quarter bin list. Next up in the franchise that couldn’t get it together was Astonishing X-Men. After Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s legendary run, Warren Ellis is announced as the new series writer, along with Simone Bianchi on pencils. This is one of those creative teams that sounds wonderful on paper, but ultimately they created an utterly skippable arc that was of no consequence whatsoever, and its lateness rendered it egregiously out of sync with the rest of the X-Titles. On top of it all, though several issues of the main title were late, they of course managed to spunk out an overpriced non-essential spin-off mini-series amid the debacle. So far, the arc with Phil Jimenez has been marginally better, but judging from what’s out they’re still being phoned in and devoid of any of that “special” Jossy Cassawhedon feeling. The last, and perhaps most painful, stumble in the trinity of derailed X-Books has become Uncanny X-Men. Early issues with Pixie gave some hope, but I feel that Fraction has lost focus and will be unable to machete his way out of the jungle, attempting to juggle far too many characters, an unwieldy web of plot threads, and decades of convoluted continuity. Unfortunately, he’s being assisted by nothing but forced crossovers and at least one artist who would rather trace copies of Jessica Alba and Sawyer from Lost out of Entertainment Weekly than actually compose a decent string of those boxy square things (or whatever those shapes are called that you’re supposed to know how to tell a story with). It’s been a slow, lazy spiral toward the drain, with occasional bursts of brilliance and beauty like Uncanny X-Men #512 with Yanick Paquette on pencils, depicting Beast and the Science Team’s time-jumping adventures. That pleasant anomaly aside, we’re headed toward the waste water treatment plant and it teeters on the fence for me, wanting to justifiably pull the plug for reasons of quality, but hanging on with continued purchases out of sheer blind momentum.

Comic Foundry Goes Bust: Tim Leong and Laura Hudson created a much needed periodical that occupied a vacuum in the differentiated market space somewhere between the erudition of The Comics Journal and the 8th grade fart and boob humor of Wizard Magazine. I never got that final issue that Tim Leong promised, which actually felt like the perfect denouement to a sadly missed opportunity for niche market exploitation. Perhaps it’s emblematic of the larger socioeconomic conditions of the country we’re presently experiencing, namely the rapid elimination of the middle class. It seems that there is no tolerance for the middle ground any longer; you can either be ultra-wealthy and take baths in Cristal and Beluga, immune to all market fluctuations – or toil away with two incomes, but still struggle to make the mortgage payment, ultimately living on the streets marinating in your own blend of cat piss and spicy “beef” grease from .99 cent Jack in the Box tacos. Comic Foundry was that middle class periodical aimed at the learned every man, yet sadly our market conditions led to no man actually purchasing it, or even being marginally aware of its existence, despite big pushes with free copies at SDCC and some really stellar writing and interviewing. Oh, Comic Foundry. We’ll always have that Jonathan Lethem interview that led me back to Omega: The Unknown. And I still think the Matt Fraction “Undercover” issue was priceless. Sigh.

Amazing Spider-Man #583 & All It Symbolizes: So yeah, what’s with the weird speculator crap seeping back in to the market? It sure seems like there are a lot of variant covers, “special” issues with artificially inflated prices, overhyped interest, renumbering tricks to get maximum sell through, and just lame ass gimmicks. Green Lantern Rings? Seriously? Are you fucking kidding me? What, are we in 4th Grade still? If you keep buying it, they’ll keep making it. Vote with your wallets, people. 1992 called and it wanted the lesson you were already supposed to have learned back.

I Shouldn’t Complain, but Paul Pope… did not produce Battling Boy, nor was the whispered “Total THB” ever published. True, we did see his contributions in Wednesday Comics and Strange Tales, but I’ve always felt that his creator owned work was a lot more interesting aesthetically and thematically. Both of these books were in fact announced by First Second Publishing (as long out as two years ago on “Total THB"), who indicated they’d see the light of day some time in 2009, and then… everything went dark. It was like I was watching Run Silent Run Deep, or one of those other classic submarine movies where the sailors nervously look around at each other as they dive further into the deep trying to avoid the looming depth charges. I suppose art takes time and that I should be thankful for the awesome Adam Strange story that largely made Wednesday Comics for me, but damn if it’s hard not to be greedy and feel like the ultimate First Second Pulp Hope c--k tease was in effect this year. BONUS: First Second never got around to publishing The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple either. Sigh.

Expectations Not Met: There were a few titles that just didn’t live up to my hopes right out of the gate. After just killing it with The Lone Ranger, I was eagerly anticipating Buck Rogers from Dynamite Entertainment, and it just… sat there. The art was mediocre at best, and the storytelling just felt like a severely watered down version of Fear Agent. It was so boring. Next up was Greek Street from Peter Milligan and Davide Gianfelice for DC/Vertigo. I like watching Gianfelice get all Eduardo Risso and draw boobs, incest, and a bunch of gangsters doing a bunch of gangster shit as much as the next guy, but Milligan’s script just didn’t feel as focused as it could have, stretching the underlying premise a bit too far. I wasn’t quite able to get a foothold on the story. I enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy, but The Nobody OGN and Sweet Tooth (even priced at $1) both left me cold. James Robinson’s run on JLA began with a teased image featuring Mon-El, Dick Grayson as Batman, and Donna Troy. Well, as interesting as that sounds, uhh yeah, those people aren’t even in the book. Instead, you get Vixen, Gypsy, and Red Tornado co-opted into the Blackest Night crossover. Whatever. I’m sure the direction and intent should generally be “make JLA better” or “it should be the cornerstone of the DCU,” but a goal without a plan is just a hope. They’re repeating all the mistakes of the past, bogging writers down in crossovers before a title can even get off the ground. Hope is flickering away. Additionally, there were some titles that started strong, but sort of fizzled. Batman & Robin could really do no wrong provided Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s names were on the cover, but then you go and screw up the equation. God love Philip Tan, but following Frank Quitely isn’t any kind of fun for anyone. Morrison also made a big splash with a second volume of Seaguy, but the buzz on that either never began or was over so quickly that I must have been absent that day on the interwebs. Neil Gaiman threw his hat into the ring with the Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? two-parter, the first of which I dug, the second felt like a completely different creative team and was a bit of an ambitious dud.

Late, Stalled, Delayed, Postponed, On Hiatus: Well, the good news was that Planetary finally wrapped with issue #27 coming out. The bad news? It happened 10 years after the first issue. That’s an average of, let’s see, four, carry the one, two point five, square root of seven, decimal there, ahem… 2.7 issues per year, not counting specials. Wow. Yeah, keep holding your breath for the fourth trade paperback, fourth hardcover, and then that second Absolute Edition. Moving on, remember Jonathan Hickman’s Image work? Yeah, every single one of those mini-series ran late, The Nightly News, Pax Romana, Transhuman, and remember something called Red Mass for Mars? Oh, is this book still being published? Yeah, I think so. The last issue came out in October of 2008 and it’s still not done. It’s a 4 issue mini-series. Awesome. Elsewhere, I tuned out by issue three or so, but we also got the last installment of The End League almost two years after it began. Bounce with me… after some “restructuring” at Archaia Studios Press – aka: ASP, err… is it just Archaia now(?), why are there two web-sites still up(?), hello, is this thing on(?) – Jacamon and Matz’s The Killer finally concluded with issue #10 after a several month delay. Now all we need is that second hardcover and I can stop being annoyed. Finally, what happened to Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s quintessential blaxploitation missive Afrodisiac? I was eagerly anticipating their biting sociological observations that manage to capture the ludicrous, the hypocritical, the sacred, and the profane nature of some of the stereotyping it plays around with. I wanted to include this book in my list of favorites; surely it would have been on the list judging from previous output, but it disappeared. It was announced, solicited, posted on AdHouse Books’ web-site as a “December 2009” release for months, and then was a ghostly no-show as the clock drained on 2009. Is everything actually late and delayed and stalled, or does it just happen to be the books that I’m specifically interested in which seem to go MIA? What a hassle.

Warren Ellis… was a bit of a “miss” this year for me, though I still like to play with this occasionally. By my totally subjective non-scientific personal arsebiscuit guesstimation, he only “hit” about 40% of the time. True, while Ellis’ 40% is more enjoyable than most writers’ 100%, it was unsettling to have one of the go-to creators not deliver as reliably as he may have in the past. I’ve enjoyed Black Summer, No Hero, and despite Supergod starting pretty strong (though I am bummed that Juan Jose Ryp is not on art chores to complete the triptych), it ultimately got trade-waited. On the other hand, Ignition City, Freakangels, Hotwire, and the aforementioned Astonishing X-Men all left me cold. Some of these titles had fun moments, but in search of a good meal, they felt a bit like eating cotton candy, leaving me hollow with empty calories and ultimately unsatisfied. Oh, and Frankenstein’s Womb? Well, it was certainly no Aetheric Mechanics. Hell, it’s wasn’t even as good as Crecy.


Nathan and The Land of Robots by Matt Dye

Nathan and The Land of Robots (Matt Dye Comics): It’s hard for me to believe that this is another project produced by one of Ryan Claytor’s Michigan State University (MSU) students, because it looks like the output of a professional that’s been at it a while, and not a debut offering fraught with common amateur pitfalls. Dye has a keen eye for overall package design, it’s there in the way he incorporates his principal characters into the title lettering, and evident in the extra effort on the cover pages, nifty spot illustrations, and clear contact information. In a self-published world where I’m often left scratching my head wondering about price point, web presence, or just basic creator and publisher information, Matt Dye has the basics down pat and delivers a satisfyingly complete package. Moving onto the story itself, Dye shows an aptitude for world building. His character designs for the robots are original and unique, the robots seem to use a different written language, and I enjoyed the various social classes of robots which came bearing different functions and personalities. On top of 28 story pages, Dye even manages to squeeze in 8 pages of bonus material in the form of a "Robot Glossary," which is the type of feature you’d expect to find on a special edition DVD or collected edition of a comic book. In the dialogue department, it’s nice to see speech that doesn’t feel stiff and staged, but comes off realistically. It’s obvious in the unlikely team up with the wisecracking Merx, and the worry Nathan exhibits about his mom’s reaction and need to return to The Land of The Humans. Dye taps into something that is universally appealing and present in myths. It’s the quest that fuels a young hero’s maturation process, the testing of self on the journey to adulthood. When you throw in non-stop action, good humor, and well meaning beings you have a formula for success. Dye’s panel transitions are smooth and seamless; he seems to organically know exactly where to cut a shot. There were times when I didn’t feel as if I was reading a comic book any longer and had ventured into a short animated film that moved deftly and crisply, spiriting me along an imaginative and absorbing journey. There’s great use of cinematic perspective in the aerial shots above Nathan’s house, but it never ceases to be a well rendered comic or lose the foothold in sequential art. The characters come with emotive expressions, there are rich panels full of a variety of line work that don’t skimp on details, and impressive full page spreads and half page shots where Dye is diligently working the foreground and background harmoniously. I particularly enjoyed some of the skewed panel shapes when Nathan falls from the sky; they demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the sequential art link between the aesthetic and thematic. With the recent Milo & Ginny by Denny Connolly and Sergio Castro, and Matt Dye’s Nathan and The Land of Robots, I almost feel as if there is a resurgence in comics concerned with the lost childhood sense of awe and wonder. You can almost trace the lineage of these books down from Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, to things like Jordan Crane’s The Clouds Above, right up to this new batch of creators I’ve become enamored of. Matt Dye offers a fully thought out, self contained story with little ambiguity other than the one clever question raised – did Nathan literally travel to The Land of Robots, or was it simply an adventure he fabricated inside his sleepy mind? There are clues left in the toys he’s playing with in the first and last scenes, but I prefer a world without an answer to this query, where it’s nice to be left wondering and imagining the possibilities just like a child discovering a new world. I sincerely hope that Matt Dye is considering a career in comics, because with future projects as strong as this, he’s ready for prime time, ready to start tabling at places like APE, SPX, STAPLE!, SPACE, or any of the venues receptive to this caliber of work. Nathan and The Land of Robots is highly recommended and I urge you to get yourself over to www.mattdyecomics.blogspot.com to see about getting yourself a copy. It’s something you really need to do if you want to get in on the ground floor with one of the next generation’s rising stars in the mini-comics and small press world. Grade A.

Marked #1 @ Poopsheet Foundation

Check out my latest review over at Poopsheet Foundation.

My 13 Favorite Things of 2009: Special Prize (Part 15 of 17)

JLA: Cry for Justice (DC): Yup, I’m awarding this Special Prize for The Book I Loved To Hate and using it as the bridge between my favorite things of the year and some of the disappointments that came along with them. Gay… err, Boobs… err, Cry For Justice itself was honestly one of the worst books the year had to offer, yet I looked forward to it and got excited when I knew it was coming out. The panel compositions were illogical, sexist, and confusing. The dialogue was expository, out of character, and hoary. Yet I wanted more of this soapy overwrought stupid melodrama. It was so bad, it was good. The guiltiest of pleasures. It is storytelling derailment personified, full of cheap shock value violence, wantonly sexualized fan service situations, expository flux capacitor overdrive, grossly out of balance mischaracterization, discarded bit player leftovers from elsewhere, and Robinson’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-I-think-this-is-what-sells amalgamation of an approach, yet I enjoyed it so much. It’s the same reason I keep watching 90210 despite constantly muttering “this is fucking awful.” I smile incredulously through every predictable bit of hammer-handed foreshadowing, implausibly constructed events, film school formulaic plotting, lame camera placement, sniveling line delivery, and atrocious acting. Cry for Justice deserves a drinking game already. Every time Hal mentions a threesome with Huntress and Lady Blackhawk, drink! Every time someone gets a limb dismembered, drink! Every time a gay character is killed and gets turned into a rug, drink! Every time someone is caught staring at Supergirl’s boobs (easy to do when she has no head), drink! We’ll all get sloppy drunk like that one chic at your Holiday Party.


The Laundromat @ Poopsheet Foundation

Check out my latest review over at Poopsheet Foundation.

The Great Statistical Purchasing Analysis of 2009!

In lieu of new reviews this week, due to the lazy brilliance of the holiday “skip week” imposed on us, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update you on my annual Statistical Purchasing Analysis for 2009. C’mon, I know there are some statistics nerds out there who like to quote percentages and rattle off facts during meetings as much as I do. Really, you know this is going to be exciting.

In order to maintain my own sanity (please, you don’t need to argue this point), I decided to simplify things significantly this year. Rather than delving deep into categories and qualitatively analyzing genre, format, and publisher, not to mention including purchasing intentions and ultimate disposition of the books, this is simply a quantifiable list of metrics with some brief commentary.

Assuming I move forward with this easily tracked format, I’ll have three data sets at the end of 2010; and what’s the rule? That’s right – Mr. Embry, my high school stats teacher, said that “three points make a trend.” I managed to catch that even while staring at Gretchen (who looked vaguely like Whitney Port from The Hills and used to wear frilly low cut tank tops on hot days, sans bra, offering some nice perky side boob), so in the future expect to see some fancy charts and shit instead of this droll sea of text – since we’re all visual learners around here.

Total Purchased: 193 (259 in 2008, -25%)
Total Cost: $682 ($777 in 2008, -12%)
Avg. Items/Week: 3.71 (4.98 in 2008, -25%)
Avg. Cost/Week: $13.12 ($14.94 in 2008, -12%)

Total Purchased: 26 (55 in 2008, -53%)
Total Cost: $521 ($1,200 in 2008, -57%)
Avg. Items/Week: .50 (1.06 in 2008, -53%)
Avg. Cost/Week: $10.02 ($23.08 in 2008, -57%)

Total Purchased: 219 (314 in 2008, -30%)
Total Cost: $1,203 ($1,977 in 2008, -39%)
Avg. Items/Week: 4.21 (6.04 in 2008, -30%)
Avg. Cost/Week: $23.13 ($38.02 in 2008, -39%)

* So yeah, the bottom line is that I bought less and spent less across all categories. Not surprising considering the greater economic conditions, but also the results of last year’s analysis told me that I was buying tons of stuff that I didn’t like and ended up giving away or selling. I made a conscious effort to still be an adventurous consumer, wanting to stay abreast of what’s out there, but also a bit more informed and selective in the process.

* Purchasing of single issues was down, about 25% or so, but interestingly enough the total cost of these items was not reduced proportionally, at only about a 12% reduction. I can easily attribute this to the average price point of single issues increasing. I didn’t track this specifically, but it’s obvious just by taking a look at the titles on the stands (and more selectively, those I buy), that the majority of them are no longer $2.99, but range from $3.50 to $3.99.

* I realize that business models change, inflation, recession, etc., but consider it a lesson learned; you can gouge me on one title for more money, but I just end up buying fewer titles overall, so best case scenario – it’s a wash, worst case scenario – the publisher/distributor/LCS actually lose money with a price hike, not to mention alienating the audience. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the reverse was true as well. Let’s say for example, that every title was lowered to $2.00. I’d probably be spending twice what I do now, simply because I’d subconsciously feel like I was “getting a deal” and be more willing to experiment on marginal titles since it would be perceived as a “low risk” purchase.

* As for weekly run rates on single issues, I’d been buying on average about 5 titles per week in 2008, and that was down in 2009 to roughly 3¾. Consistent with that, and the disproportional effect on cost, I’d been averaging a spend of about $14.94 weekly, which was down to $13.12 this year. That’s not terribly significant, other than to harp on the point that it represents a 12% drop in expenses, even though the total amount of raw items I was buying was reduced double that amount at approximately 25%.

* In terms of pure change, trades and graphic novels witnessed the biggest reduction. As for volume, I purchased 53% fewer items in this category. That’s a big drop to me, half. I bought fewer than half the bookshelf ready publications than I had the previous year. On average, I picked up one trade or GN per week in 2008, and that slipped to an average of .5 per week, or one every two weeks, which is a little easier to process in the real world.

* As for cost on trades and graphic novels, this was, not surprisingly, the bulk of the year’s savings as well. Cost was actually down 57% here and looking at the pure dollars it feels substantial. Instead of spending $1,200 (2008), it was down to about $521. Weekly run rates on trades and graphic novels were consistent with this drop, averaging about $10 per week, rather than the weekly average of $23 I’d spent the previous year.

* I’m generalizing here, but I think in most cases, this was me upgrading to a better/collected format on titles I’d already purchased in single issues, rather than totally “unknown” material I might be taking a chance on. It certainly felt like I was doing that and not just picking up some random OGN with unfamiliar creators and saying “oh, this looks cool, I’ll buy it!” If I didn’t previously consume the content, if there wasn’t a creative team I was at least familiar with, or if a book did not have some type of recommendation from a trusted source, then it probably didn’t get purchased as easily as it would have been in the past.

* Overall, the total volume of physical items I purchased (combining both categories) was down by about 30% and the associated total cost was reduced by almost 40%. That’s probably a direct result of purchasing significantly fewer trades and GN’s, which typically average a much higher price point than their floppy counterparts. Unlike single issues, there’s also an extremely wide range of pricing on trades and graphic novels. I could spend $100 on an oversized hardcover book, but it would only count as one item in the tracking system or, conversely, buy two $14.99 trades which would double the volume, but only bump the total spend by $30. Either scenario is capable of skewing the metrics a bit, tipping the scales back and forth between total number of raw units and relative cost.

* Converting these volume reductions to bottom line monetary impact, I ended up saving $774 as compared to the previous year. At first, I felt disappointed about not getting to read as much as I might have in the past, subscribing to the theory that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and heaven forbid I missed something. Would I have enjoyed some of those books I didn’t get to try? Sure, maybe a couple. Would they have stayed in my collection long term? My purchasing analysis from last year suggests no, aside from a momentary diversion, they would have been consumed, disposed of, and ultimately forgotten as pop culture detritus. Did I miss out on some critically praised gem? I doubt it. The items I did go after, as I said, were recommendations from a wide array of trusted sources. Taking all of these factors into consideration, the savings and process this year feel like a win.

My 13 Favorite Things of 2009: Honorable Mentions (Part 14 of 17)

Driven by Lemons (AdHouse Books): If only it were a bit more accessible, like its great forerunner Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man (Dark Horse): Recently selected as a Graphic Novel of the Month, this continues the sweep of Matt Kindt’s outstanding body of work. Bottom line, pretty frickin’ good, but not quite the intricate achievements that I felt 2 Sisters or especially the superb Super Spy were.

I Am Legion (DDP/Humanoids): After an abortive attempt by DC/Humanoids, DDP/Humanoids cranks out the full story of Nazi Germany’s fetish fascination with the occult, specifically concerning the Romanian “Strigoi,” or vampire. The narrative itself was a bit of a slow burner that required concentration to digest and was heavy on the talky bits. It bounced around to different characters, sets, and genre influences, but John Cassaday’s art was strong enough to pull the audience through to the bouts of action and intrigue, focusing in on the overarching investigation and conspiracy. It won’t be remembered as one of Cassaday’s most popular books, but it is certainly one of his best.

The Lone Ranger (Dynamite Entertainment): From day one, The Lone Ranger has quietly and confidently told its story of the reimaging of the man who loses it all and his subsequent quest for justice. It reads so fast and so light, that it’s lost some buzz, you can easily gloss over it. It requires re-reading, in collected fashion, to truly appreciate how well it’s executed. It’s one of the best examples of a book whose narrative momentum and ultimate greatness is hampered by the floppy serialized format and would function better as a series of OGN’s.

Luna Park (DC/Vertigo): Kevin Baker’s debut work in the comic book industry remains a flawed, but deeply engaging read. It was one weird plot choice away from making it into the upper echelon, but is still recommended, particularly for fans of Danijel Zezelj and his unique style.


My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 13 of 17)

Abhay Khosla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula: This one is kind of a cheat, because I generally don’t include web-comics in these lists, but this was just so damn funny that it broke free the bonds of categorization. This was probably the funniest piece of pop culture I consumed all year, and that includes watching some fun movies like Zombieland and The Hangover, catching up on HBO’s Entourage, keeping up once again with Attack of the Show! on G4TV, and even reading Khosla’s other writings, which always make me laugh out loud unexpectedly with their completely different approach, creative wit, and inherent intellect. He tends to polarize his reading audience. He eschews the rules, ignoring the typical approach. His observations tend to tie seemingly unrelated storytelling genres and common tropes together, put them in a blender, and irreverently spit them out from a hybrid combination of the best underground stand-up comedians you’ve never seen and the comic book insider with encyclopedic knowledge of the most obscure and awkwardly funny conventions that will sell the send-up. If that doesn’t make any sense, it’s because Khosla’s writing isn’t just on another level, it’s from an entirely different dimension, and I don’t possess the critical vocabulary necessary to explain it, much less deconstruct its origins or articulate why it’s so successful in execution. It’s vaguely familiar, yet like nothing you’ve ever seen. Oh, and you’ll laugh. Did I mention that?


My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 12 of 17)

Aya: The Secrets Come Out (Drawn & Quarterly): With a quiet sense of confidence that only comes from real life experience, and a zeal for illuminating seldom seen portions of African culture and lifestyle, Aya delivered its third installment in 2009, and was recently selected as Graphic Novel of the Month. For every element the story has to offer in terms of depicting singular events or more general living conditions, the art answers just as strongly. The pencils are content to hum happily along depicting the events, using strong transitions, emotive lines, and typical looking hand drawn panels, and then… every so often, a single page will just stop you dead in your tracks. With a photographer’s sensibility, a visual expanse becomes frozen in time with a snapshot of a static moment that perfectly isolates a mood, place, or emotion, forcing you to absorb and reconsider what’s come just before. Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie work in perfect unison. The very style of Oubrerie’s lines call to mind the themes of Abouet’s saga, to the degree that it all feels like it’s coming from one person, one creator who is both writer and artist, intuitively understanding the symbiotic link between the two functions. Aya defies its own genre and has redefined a completely new category that is non-fiction, part travelogue, part documentary, part autobio slice-of-life, in the trailblazing tradition of books like Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage or works like Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde from Joe Sacco. If there is any sense of justice in the universe, if inherent quality of craft were the true driver of fame and success, then the multi-part saga of Aya should catapult these creators to stardom, or at the very least – prolific future projects and enhanced recognition at the Eisner Awards.


My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 11 of 17)

Asterios Polyp (Pantheon): Brian Michael Bendis used to like to talk about “breaking the internet in half” with fan reaction to some of this storytelling choices, but if there was one single book that unified the entire interwebs, that every fractured corner of the blogosphere came close to agreeing on this year, it was the seemingly unanimous praise and admiration lavished upon David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. It’ll probably go down as a, if not the, book of the year when everyone’s lists are finally submitted and the larger meta-lists are tabulated. Every small time blogger, big time news writer, and even the mainstream media got in on this action. There’s not much more for me to say about Asterios Polyp other than I really enjoyed it, it comes bearing lessons in cold craft, but also contains a warm emotional core, that it rewards readers with repeated readings, and that there’s a reason everyone agrees, it truly deserves the praise it’s garnered to date. It’s layered and nuanced, and I called it back in August, saying that it’d be a strong contender once the dust settled on 2009 and everyone began to check in with their “best of” lists. It’s interesting once something has built momentum based on positive feedback; do future reviewers like it because they’re supposed to or because they truly do? The only way to be certain is to read it if you haven’t and make your own assessment, draw your own conclusion. While I always encourage this type of independent thinking, I’d be surprised to hear why anyone read it and didn’t appreciate the craft on display or have some sliver of the narrative resonate emotionally with their own life.

Creator & Critic Explore Creation & Critique (Part 3 of 4)

In case you missed it, check out Part 1 and Part 2 in this series discussing the relationship between creators and critics in the comic book industry.

Justin: Ha! No, that one wasn't loaded. I really don't have any more drama to unload. I think I've been fortunate as well, that most of my experiences have been positive, or at least civil. I don't think the relationship is inherently adversarial, but it can certainly degenerate to that depending on the approach of the critic and/or stance of the creator. If the critic has a well reasoned observation and the creator is truly open to the feedback and not defensive, in other words - if everyone is an adult - then it won't collapse into something negative. I think the best examples are symbiotic. If someone like Antony Johnston (writer of Wasteland) tweets about my review of his book, well, I give his work exposure and buzz, he gives me more readers, and that just escalates back and forth. It's win-win, for us, for our readers, and hopefully for the industry in general. I love that feeling; that everyone is just rowing the boat in the same direction, advocating the industry holistically from a place of passion and appreciation.

What makes an A+ comic, you ask? Not to get all Jesse Helms (eww!), but uhh, I know it when I see it? I'm kidding, but only to emphasize that reviews really are inherently opinionated. I try to achieve a mix of my own subjective style preferences and more commonly accepted objective commentary on the craft. On the art side of things, stylistically I tend to like artists who either have a clean, realistic, almost sterile style (John Cassaday, Dave Gibbons, Terry Moore, Jamie McKelvie to name a few) or those with a very visceral, representational, more gritty style (artists like Danijel Zezelj, R.M. Guera, Ashley Wood, or Paul Pope to drop a few names). On the objective craft side, consistency is a big concern of mine. Do your characters look the same from panel to panel? I want to get the feeling that you've done character studies. I want to see consistent use of lighting, perspective, and proportion in the work. I think, rarely, you get an artist who masters the cold craft, and then begins to push the envelope and experiment with style and attain a transcendent quality. I'd cite the work of J.H. Williams III and his recent Detective Comics run starring Batwoman as an example of this convergence. That's certainly A+ work.

As for writing, of course I look for it to be technically competent. Nothing drives me more batshit crazy than typos, malapropisms, incorrect tenses, poor use of apostrophes, commas, etc. I call myself a writer, so I appreciate a clever turn of phrase, compelling or creative use of the language, and memorable characters who are identifiable by their manners of speaking. I need dialogue to sound realistic; I'll read that stuff out loud to myself to see if it passes the real world test. In terms of plotting or story, I'm looking for something unique, and it's important to note that it's all in the telling. "Undercover FBI Agent on an Indian Reservation" sounds like it's been done. "Vikings" sounds *really* boring. But if you look at the way in which Jason Aaron executes Scalped or Brian Wood lays down Northlanders, those books transcend their basic elevator pitches. They tell entertaining and engaging stories, but more importantly they cause introspection. You can apply those themes and choices to your own life and find meaning. And shouldn't all great, A+ grade, art aspire to that personal impact with the audience, causing us to learn about ourselves in the process?

Short version? Bottom line? An A+ grade book simply makes me forget that I'm reviewing. I unconsciously put the pen down. I set the notebook aside. I push the laptop back. Suddenly, without even realizing it, I've reached the end of the book and have forgotten the reviewer's notes because I've been so thoroughly convinced of this reality, so engrossed by the tale, so captivated by the execution, that I've been pulled into the world, not pushed out by an off-putting style or breakdowns in the craft. That's my ultimate litmus test.

This might be a nice segue to one of my last two questions. I've thought about this one a lot. As a creator, do you feel reviewers should meet some set of qualifications? If you could invent them what would they be?

Ryan: This sounds sort of like asking for qualifications to become a parent; we all know there should be, but we also know there (probably) never will be. BUT, if I had to lay down a wish list of reviewer characteristics, it would likely read something like this:

Dear Santa,

I would like a comics reviewer that is able to walk that delicate balance between writing intelligently and writing accessibly. By that I mean, I want this reviewer to use creative descriptors, to use words that I might have to paste into dictionary.com, to write in such a way that pushes my intellect, but at the same time it doesn’t feel overburdened, academic, or uppity.

I’ll hope this reviewer will also be open-minded with regards to his taste in comics and constructive in his/her criticism. First off, I do not care to limit my genres when choosing comics, and neither should my reviewer. I think a comic should succeed or fail based on the quality of the writing and artwork (in that order), not based on whether it falls in the category of Superheroes, Manga, Alternative Comics, or any other, and my reviewer will feel the same way. In addition to that, when this reviewer dubs a book to be good or bad, he/she will cite examples to back up these claims.

If I’ve been an especially good boy this year, perhaps this reviewer could also include a quick, one-glance approach to reviews, such as a thumbs-up/down rating, an out-of-five-stars rating, or even a letter grade scale. Because, quite honestly, Santa, as an artist I’m pretty visually-geared, and really don’t feel like wading through a bunch of text every day.

Finally, I’d like this idealized reviewer of mine to have an incredibly kick-anus work ethic. I want to visit a website that has frequently updated content and introduces me to material I might otherwise have overlooked during hibernation in my artist-cave.

Thanks, Santa!
Ryan Claytor

Sooo? Is that too much to ask? Maybe a tad on the needy side, but a guy can dream. Actually, at the risk of sounding like a total creeper, I think you totally fit the bill, Justin. Keep up the fantabulous site, my man. Anyhow, speaking of not always wanting to wade through a mountain of text, maybe you can fire that last question my way. :)

Justin: Ryan... I love that description. And it's not just because of your compliment, which BTW, is very humbling and appreciated because I really aspire to be all of that. You just very eloquently captured the "space" I like as a fan myself, and where I want to be as a reviewer, so thank you. As a total aside, it's why I miss Comic Foundry Magazine. For me, it captured that space in between the lowtarded-brow humor of Wizard Magazine and the sometimes haughty erudition of The Comics Journal. Sigh.

As for reviewer qualifications, I ran through some options. Should a reviewer have some type of formal writing training? Should they have read a depth and breadth of comics? While I think you should know how to construct a basic sentence, some of the best writers have no formal training. While reading lots of comics can make you knowledgeable - about comics, if that's all you consume of pop culture, literature, or art, you won't be as well rounded or be able to offer any fresh perspective.

One suggestion that will probably not be very popular would be for reviewers to be required to create a mini-comic, or even just complete an actual script. Perhaps if they walk that mile, experiencing the blood, sweat, and tears involved in the creative endeavor, it would help temper their criticism. It might also yield a better understanding of the actual process. For example, sometimes I see everything non-writing getting lumped together, the “art” gets criticized, but what the reviewer is picking up on is actually an issue with inking or coloring. It's all idealized speculation, like the parent qualifications, but wouldn't it be interesting to have a professional reviewer certification from some third party entity? The homogenization would risk suppressing all of the vibrant styles and backgrounds, and it would have to be subscriptive, you could never enforce it, but I'm fascinated by stuff like this. "Justin Giampaoli - Board Certified, National Academy of Comic Arts Critique." Oh right, just call us "NACAC." Haha!

I also think sometimes critics need to recognize the fact they're discussing a person’s livelihood. If you’re a pro artist or writer and that's your sole source of income, my comments may have some (even extremely slight) bearing on that. These people have families. Not to keep invoking Brian Wood, but our daughters are the same age; that actually pops into my head from time to time. How would I feel if some random person I didn’t know started a blog and started commenting on the way I was handling my profession, for my employer, with my work product, in a very public forum? Not to get all Peter Parker or sound egotistical, but “with great power…”

Alright Mr. Claytor, my final question is simply, what is the role of a critic? You've described the style and approach you'd prefer them to take, but what is their basic function? Why do we need them? ...do we need them? (Yikes!) I have a couple of definitions I've found that we can chew on, but let me get your un-influenced thoughts first.



12.23.09 Reviews (Part 3)

The Last Days of American Crime #1 (Radical Comics): Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini deliver the first installment of the ultimate crime caper. It’s no surprise that it’s set to be a movie with Sam Worthington, because it has a very cinematic feel to it. I do appreciate that it functions extremely well as a graphic novella though and isn’t just a storyboarded proof of concept used as a film prerequisite. The book is a great value, offering 64 story pages and additional bonus material for just $4.99; keep in mind that that’s double to triple the content for just $1 (about 25%) more than the typically priced book. The noir opening narration draws you right in, but it’s enhanced by the fact that this isn’t just straight noir. There’s a cool futuristic, slightly sci-fi thread to the work, a little bit of Philip K. Dick tossed in for good measure, that’s infinitely more appealing to me than something like the more straight up noir of a title like Criminal. Tocchini’s art bears a slight resemblance to someone like Phil Noto, especially in the facial details like the big open expressive eyes, but is looser in the backgrounds. He employs heavier inks and a nice watercolor paint affect that yields an environment more lived in and crumbling, less sterile, and that suits the tone of the story quite well. His use of shadow adds mystery that obscures intentions. Remender jumps us right into his story en media res, which doesn’t insult readers with expository dialogue, merely expects them to go at the same pace and sort things out. The application of the “American Peace Initiative” is an interesting sociological quandary, a signal eliminating crime and domestic terrorism, but involving a serious invasion of privacy and first amendment rights, not to mention the ethical dilemma it raises. Graham and Shelby’s conversation in the bar is some of the best written, world weary, down-on-your-luck-and-ok-with-it dialogue around. “That walk. Tells the whole story. Every step an instant chapter. It’s own language. On it’s own frequency.” The Last Days of American Crime has exceeded my high expectations; it’s full of raw sex, raw crime, and raw ideas in a raw world. It all ends with one heck of a hook that holds its own with genre fiction contemporaries like Jason Aaron’s Scalped. Grade A.

12.23.09 Reviews (Part 2)

Northlanders #23 (DC/Vertigo): Northlanders is always a tough book for me to review because it’s so unlike anything else out there and not a typical book I’d read based on the ostensible content alone. It’s a good example of loyalty to a creator I trust, the consumer process of following a creator around to divergent properties, regardless of company, genre, character, or basic content. The method by which Brian Wood tells these stories is pretty unique as well. There are longer epic feeling arcs which alternate with shorter fast paced arcs or one-shots. They don’t always feature the same characters, locations, artists, or even time period. Even the graphic design of the covers and numbering variations from arc to arc appear like a series of mini-series rather than a singular ongoing title. I think many readers would find all of those things off-putting or inaccessible, but it’s actually one of the coolest things about the book that I’m drawn to, and it's actually very accessible, offering multiple jumping on points for new readers. I like the ability to shift focus and highlight different aspects of the larger world. It’s a liberating, smart move on Wood’s part, allowing him the freedom to explore higher level themes and concepts without necessarily having to follow the same character or place around doggedly. As much as I’m drawn to Northlanders, I’ll confess that sometimes I feel like I don’t have much to say about specific issues. They’re illustrated fantastically by some of the most talented artists working today. They’re written extremely well, always bearing clever and informative turns of phrase. However, particularly in these longer arcs, it feels like trying to review the third chapter of a really good novel. Trying to review just the third chapter in a vacuum, which is difficult for me and I’m not sure my comments are terribly helpful to potential readers. In any case, let’s give it a go. I tried a mental exercise this issue in which I forced myself to reduce what I liked about the issue into single words that ran throughout the work. The two words I was able to settle on were “detail” and “dichotomy.” The details are obviously there visually in Leandro Fernandez’s art, in Dave McCaig’s coloring (who certainly deserves an Eisner nod for his work on this book, I repeatedly notice how grand the palette is), but also in the script regarding the various speculative mechanisms by which the plague could potentially spread, and even down to the composition of the city walls reinforced by the frozen turf. Wood never skimps on research and richly scatters the results around for us to absorb. In terms of dichotomous forces, we’ve got the inborn fatalism that comes to the surface when the inhabitants are faced with insurmountable odds, but that’s balanced against the sharp focus that provides them, a sense of achieving the seemingly impossible. Boris and Gunborg are literal opposing forces, paradigms of progress and change grappling with tradition and conservative values. Similarly, science and reason seem to always be at odds with faith and base emotions like greed. There’s the beautiful visual dichotomy of fire and ice. Perhaps that’s a visual representation of the incongruous parts that comprise these people’s lives, of their very existence they said poetically “each day a battle… and a miracle.” Grade A.

My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 10 of 17)

Wednesday Comics (DC): It was really a good year for most of the anthology style books I picked up. Marvel’s Strange Tales and The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror being some of the strongest examples, but Wednesday Comics was a breed apart. Honestly, you had me at Paul Pope, since he’s one of those buy on sight creators. But more than any single creator or character, it was the experimental spirit and heart of an explorer that Mark Chiarello harnessed and should be commended for. Do something different. You learn in this process. The company learns. The talent grows. There were sure hits (Strange Adventures), and sure blunders (Teen Titans), and noble failures somewhere in between (Wonder Woman), but like Solo before it, the project conceptually was brilliant and should be encouraged. I’m switching gears here to talk about Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and Warner Brothers restructuring of DC Entertainment, but it’s a good example to run with. If Disney and WB truly adopt the business model and treat their subsidiary companies as “hands-off R&D labs” mined for successful properties that they can put their marketing and distribution muscle behind, then projects like Wednesday Comics should continue to be produced. Heck, they should not only be allowed, but be overtly encouraged as part of the corporate culture. It will be telling to see if there is continued permission to fail, if experiments conducted aren’t always necessarily held to bottom line driven decision making, if the commerce demands can yield momentarily to the creative ones. In short, for every Strange Adventures, there are ten Teen Titans and you can’t always get the precision of the former without the freedom to try the latter. In my opinion, the more experimentation with things like Wednesday Comics we see, the healthier the industry is and can continue to be. If that happens, then Disney and Warner Brothers might not be the overbearing corporate overlords everyone fears, and their treatment will signify renewed prosperity and financial viability for an already artistically rich medium. Wednesday Comics was never about the quality of the strips in and of themselves, it was about the creative management lesson to be learned.


12.23.09 Reviews (Part 1)

Detective Comics #860 (DC): JH Williams III recently let slip on his web-site’s message board that the second arc of this originally planned 12 issue run might not appear in Detective Comics, and that DC was working on setting up “another venue,” pending a “big announcement” from the company. CBR confirmed that story this morning. Jock will still be coming in and doing his arc with Greg Rucka, and then it appears likely that the continuing adventures of Kate Kane will appear in a new solo Batwoman title. In the long run, I don’t really care I guess, all 12 issues will probably be collected as one package since there’s so much popularity and critical acclaim, but it is kinda’ stupid that the first half of the story is in one title, the second half in another title, with a “fill in” artist interrupting the halves. DC’s logic of not wanting to “damage the Batman brand” with a comic about a “lesbian socialite vigilante” (and good god, I hate that description, I mean, if that’s all you can reduce Kate Kane’s character to, you’re really missing the point of the series, DC marketing chaps) in her own solo book in the first place seems weak. Wouldn’t the liberal fanboy fascination with lipstick lesbians, coupled with a great creative team, on top of a notoriously high-selling new #1, have overcome all of the homosexual backlash DC claims to have wrongly anticipated? In short, this feels like a poor publishing move, with an even weaker explanation when they’re pressed on it. They were too chicken shit to provide her with her own damn title in the first place, took the low risk route, and now that it’s proven successful, want to cash in on a new #1 while interest is high, despite interrupting the organic flow of a run. Way to plan, DC. Way to stick by your creators with a potentially “controversial” character. At the end of the day though, I’ll happily purchase this great team on a great character, regardless of the largely superficial title of the book. Now that my tirade is over, this issue wraps up Kate Kane’s origin story. It’s a great issue that focuses on the realism of the interplay between Kate and her dad. It was a big draw for me last issue and it continues here. Kate has a great father who is emotionally mature and forward thinking; instead of pushing back on her unconventional desires and limiting her development, he always finds a way to encourage and support, whether morally or physically in the form of training, equipment, or identifiable mission parameters that will measure and attain success. It’s such a structured environment and it differentiates her from other folks in the Bat Family. Not only is it her actual biological father, as opposed to a stand-in or adopted caretaker, but her father succinctly points out that (unlike Bruce) the mission can’t be about bringing dead family members back or she’s already failed. Dad plays the hybrid role of Oracle/Microchip/Alfred all in one, and antes up with SAS operatives and FBI favors, training in hand to hand combat, weapons, urban warfare, academics, and forensics, all depicted in a killer two page spread that is superbly efficient. It’s remarkable to me that Kate’s chosen lifestyle is somehow celebratory, until the cold truths about Elizabeth are revealed, early on she isn’t depicted as a lost soul tragically doomed to a mission of revenge, but adorned with Kaballistic symbols of strength and power. I think it’s great that today’s “Favorite 13 of 2009” post was about this book, because hopefully the double tap emphasis on this outstanding collaboration will urge any stragglers who’ve missed it to get on board with one of the upper echelon of superhero comics currently being produced. Grade A.

Uncanny X-Men #519 (Marvel): Matt Fraction gives us a look at asymmetrical warfare being waged on multiple fronts. There’s a psychic assault on the X-Men’s leaders, power and sustainability issues addressed by the Science Team, and a nano-invasion discovered while struggling with a vacuum of leadership due to the absence of Beast, who himself is enduring a crisis of purpose. Yup, Matt's juggling some plot threads here. It’s interesting that this relatively small scale set of issues on this little island nation are a representation of society’s problems as a whole. Some of the psychic physics seem implausible, but I guess suspending reality is partially the reason people read escapist literature in the first place. Magneto turns to an interesting person for assistance and is adorned with some interesting vocabulary, infusing “diaspora” into the mix, but his lines seem largely out of character. He’s lost the condescending intellect in his voice that made him so compelling in the first place. Dodson’s art is certainly better than Land’s when it comes to individual figure work, but his backgrounds tend to be sparse to non-existent, typically a monochromatic backdrop devoid of any line work. At the end of it all, Scott proves to not only be a tactician in the field, a strategist leading his people, but also a psychic combatant who’s picked up tricks from his many friends and lovers along the way. Fraction also gives us a little Jed Bartlett homage with the simple line: “What’s next?” Grade B.

My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 9 of 17)

Dark Reign: Zodiac (Marvel): I deeply, deliberately, defensively even, tuned out of all things bearing the Dark Reign banner. I really can’t stress that enough. But. Joe Casey. Nathan Fox. When I see those two names on a book, it’s basically an instant buy, regardless of company, character, or content. Joe Casey had an interesting run on Uncanny X-Men that pre-dated his prescient and forward thinking Wildcats re-launches, but Wildstorm’s Automatic Kafka is what really turned my appreciation of his ability into fandom. I’ve followed everything since, Avengers, Godland, even some of the G.I. Joe work for Devil’s Due Publishing. I randomly saw Nathan Fox’s art for the first time while picking up Dark Horse’s Pigeons from Hell mini-series out of a quarter bin. He began popping up here and there, including a great single issue of DMZ spotlighting DJ Random Fire. Instant fandom ensued, and I now pick up anything he works on. The easiest way to condense what I loved about Dark Reign: Zodiac into a short blurb is to cite the writing in the self-aware line “all good things are done in defiance of management” and couple that with Nathan Fox’s disturbing and unsettling images of Johnny Storm being beaten up that served as the series opener. It’s almost as if Marvel Editorial either wasn’t aware of, or didn’t care about, what was going on in this throwaway little book, and allowed this fresh, subversive, creative outburst to occur right in its own backyard. Zodiac is so consistent with itself; it’s dark tone, violence, sex, and humor boldly shrug their shoulders at the conventional, while being compelling and entertaining. This book is remarkably different, tonally, visually, and stylistically. In the current market landscape occupied largely by the Big Two, it’s but a tiny example of the type of paradigm shifting projects they could be publishing, instead of turning to so many dry wells seeking to recapture some nostalgic time in the past that never really existed in the first place. We should have all paid more attention to this quiet little coup d’etat. Because these guys? These guys are the future.


My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 8 of 17)

Detective Comics (DC):
…starring Kate Kane as Batwoman, by Greg Rucka and JH Williams III. The year is 1992 and the place is a tiny local con in an old VFW hall in our hometown. It’s the first time I see JH Williams III tabling as a professional, having completed a run on Demonic Toys from Eternity Comics. I bought them all, along with a print of Rogue that he drew. This guy’s good, I like his style, I’ll keep my eye on him I remember thinking to myself. Next up, he did a great DC book called Chase, with D. Curtis Johnson. I bought everything he did as he finally broke out with Alan Moore’s Promethea. Flash forward to 1999 and the place is San Jose State University. Going back to my alma mater, I find myself handing out thousands of free downloadable copies of Greg Rucka’s Whiteout from Oni Press. It was my first exposure to his well-researched, procedural style writing, and I quickly followed him to Queen & Country, up through DC work like Checkmate. Somehow, miraculously, their career tracks intersect with my own personal childhood affinity for the Bat Family in 2009’s Detective Comics. Their run-in has proven to be the perfect marriage of Rucka’s strengths with industrial lingo and strong female leads, Williams’ self-evident brilliance and formal structuring of a page, and a combined mastery of what makes the Bat Mythos function properly. This melding of paradigms literally manifests itself in issue #859 as Kate meets her destiny and Williams’ own array of artistic styles collide during her origin story. Rucka has assembled an interesting cast to deal with and nobody working today is producing more imaginative page layouts, panel designs, or intriguing covers than Jim Williams. He’s been reinvigorating the art of superhero page layouts and design with a conscious, deliberate pastiche of stylistic emulations. Though the adventures of Kate Kane really spun out of the 52 crossover malaise, this run of Detective Comics is not at all convoluted, and it’s somewhat self-contained. It is must see comics, and when's the last time that Detective Comics (the longest continuously running title in the US) has been so relevant? It’s become an anchor in a universe that is largely unintelligible to me now, due in unharmonious part to the very crossover madness that spawned it. It’s the one bright spot that I don’t dismiss; it forces me to stop, slow down, and appreciate the way a page is constructed, to admire the art, and how it functions in unison with the tone of a script, emphasizing meaning, direction, and intent. It’s like enjoying a fine meal, never wanting it to end, savoring each bite or panel. Generally speaking, I’m not into collecting runs of a series in individual issues. It’s not my mentality; I like having trades and graphic novels on the shelf. It saves space, is often a better deal, looks nice, and I sort of like how it implicitly thumbs its nose at the collector mentality. This run of ‘Tec has been an exception. I like having the single issues, those covers are ones I want to own and pore over. I guess I’ll have to eat my words if Batwoman is ultimately collected independently of The Question. I ignore that strip, and would probably squeal with delight the same way I did when Doctor 13 was collected independently of The Spectre story in Tales of the Unexpected. If you’re simply after the pinnacle of Greg Rucka’s superhero work, or if you'd like to see some meaningful and metaphoric pencils, or even if you want something more than the sum of those wonderful parts, an astounding project that can withstand the critical scrutiny of these guys, which I consider some of the toughest and most insightful of the lot, then this run of Detective Comics is the business. This is mainstream superhero comics at its finest.


Coming This Week: "And The Band Plays Some Song About Forgetting Yourself For A While"

Every week I review Diamond's “New Releases” to determine what I’ll definitely be buying sight unseen, what I’m interested in enough to do a quick scan of at the LCS to see if it can win me over, and note any other items that catch my eye. Here’s a look…


The Last Days of American Crime #1 (Radical Comics): Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini finally get this little series underway about a not too distant future high concept crime caper set during the government’s attempt to eliminate crime altogether. If it’s as intriguing as the San Diego Comic Con Preview, then consider me sold on this three issue series. Also of note is that Radical is putting this out in their self-described “revolutionary new ‘BIGGER BOOKS! BIGGER VALUE!’ format, each issue of The Last Days of American Crime contains more than 60 pages of story and art for only $4.99.”

Detective Comics #860 (DC): Greg Rucka and JH Williams III finishing up their three part origin story for Kate Kane, prior to their brief respite, in which Jock takes over on art duties. While this issue is sure to delight the senses, I hope the Jock arc won’t be akin to Philip Tan following Frank Quitely on Batman & Robin.

Northlanders #23 (DC/Vertigo): Word on the street is that I like this book quite a bit; eagerly anticipating more from Brian Wood and Leandro Fernandez as The Plague Widow arc continues. Don’t be frustrated by the longer arcs of Northlanders; sure, they don’t have the quick flash gratification of their smaller compatriots, but when all’s said and done they deliver in powerful ways.


Uncanny X-Men #519 (Marvel): If I ever come to my senses and stop the blind loyalty to some characters I like conceptually, 2010 will probably be the year I stop supporting this title in its current incarnation.


Okko: Cycle of Earth #4 (Archaia): Your eyes are not deceiving you. After a several month dealy, Archaia puts out back to back weekly issues of this series to wrap it all up before the clock is drained on 2009.

My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 7 of 17)

Northlanders (DC/Vertigo): If you’re here reading this list it’s probably no undiscovered revelation to you that I’m a big fan of Brian Wood. I think he’s a writer who’s successfully captured the attitude and mental acuity of a generation. But the thing is, I keep telling people that DMZ is my favorite work because it’s easier to explain why in a single sound byte style sentence. I’ve lavished DMZ with a lot of praise, but I’ve just been taking the easy way out all along. It took me until about issue five to really be sold, but honestly, Northlanders has slowly eclipsed DMZ and supplanted the Second American Civil War saga as the work that suits my sensibilities more completely at this point in my life. It sounds silly and New Age-y, but Northlanders is a book about life. It’s about what it means to be a man, or a father, or a lover, or a warrior, or a thinker; it’s the pinnacle of Wood’s fascination with identity, because it’s such a multi-faceted examination of the idea. I don’t want to give short shrift to DMZ; it’s an extremely good and particularly important book for this post-Bush, Obama Generation, but it has a tighter focus, and isn’t as polyamorous with the ideas it chooses to explore. My cousin Jacob and I have this running gag about how Matthew McConaughey basically plays the same guy in every single movie, best evidenced by the attorney Jake Tyler Brigance in the adaptation of the John Grisham novel A Time To Kill. We have refined the core essence of this archetype into a single phrase: “wired into the old boys network, but progressive.” I recently re-read Northlanders: Volume 1: Sven The Returned. I believe this first arc was one of his best and was struck with what a fantastic protagonist Sven was/is. He is very progressive in an environment staunchly rooted in the traditional, and that provides a great deal of storytelling tension. His religious beliefs, sexual relationships, fighting tactics, means of conflict resolution, and general worldview have been widened by his time abroad. It’s interesting that the end to the first arc defies expectations and doesn’t result in him reclaiming the throne he is rightfully heir to, but in bequeathing his birthright to Hakkar out of a sense of mutual respect, weariness, perseverance, grasp of the bigger picture, and understanding of his people’s place in history. I was also moved by Sven’s sense of youthful fascination with big city life; Wood (through Ivarsson) understands what that draw is, but also comments on the underbelly of that lifestyle, being unable to appreciate and value little moments because there’s simply no time for them. This year reached a particular high point with the done in one intensity of issue #17 with artist Vasilis Lolos. Wood’s been skipping around in Viking time, place, and character, with arcs of various lengths, exploiting his own brand of storytelling engine. With issue 17, he takes a hard detour to focus on a singular aspect of the era he’s writing about. There are many examples of this type of exploration in Northlanders, symbolic of the types of ruminations on life the series is capable of producing. Northlanders is somehow simultaneously more considerate and introspective emotionally, yet also more brutal and visceral than other superficial “Viking” era comics that have cluttered up the market ever since the popularity of something like Conan. It’s a pity that works of that nature became the standard, because Northlanders offers so much more. It is poised to redefine the genre. I’ve said before that Wood is particularly blessed as a writer to not only be an artist himself, but has a knack for being paired with some of the best, most underrated artists working today. Becky Cloonan, Ryan Kelly, Riccardo Burchielli, Davide Gianfelice, Danijel Zezelj, Nathan Fox, and Leandro Fernandez read like a string of phenomenal talent that would be on any writer’s professional wish list for collaboration. It’s also been interesting to see Wood maturing as an artist, as his own personal priorities and proclivities begin seeping into his work as he grows. Alas, I don’t have any pithy clever way to end this post. I’ll just say simply that Northlanders is all you can hope for, all I’ve ever really wanted in a piece of fiction, and when carefully deconstructed, I tend to agree with Brian Wood, that it’s probably some of his best writing.


My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 6 of 17)

A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly): Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical masterpiece is a weighty 850+ pages, following the post-war manga boom that included Tatsumi’s own desire to differentiate his tonally serious gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) style from the larger body of whimsical and gag-oriented manga strips of the era. The overall dramatic thrust of this work chronicles Tatsumi’s life in general, but also captures one of the fathers of modern manga adopting a serious tone and stories capable of emotional gravitas, not just childish antics. What I most admire about his work, and what is most readily apparent in this particular book, is the “social recorder” he can be from a cultural anthropology perspective. Moreso than in the other books translated and overseen by Drawn & Quarterly and Adrian Tomine, Tatsumi is adept at capturing the essence of a culture, time period, event, or shift in thinking simply by the act of documenting it in an unbiased fashion. I think it holds more meaning to more people because of the wider interpretation if affords vs. a more limiting authorial explanation. I was discussing Tatsumi casually with Grant Lee (friend and artist of Blood Orange) the other day and making this very point. Tatsumi rarely editorializes; he simply lays pictures and events out on the page for you and lets you draw your own conclusions, you’re never told how to think or feel about a particular passage. Instead, it’s an open invitation to explore your own emotions and reactions to what’s happening on the page. It was something I hadn’t realized, but that method of storytelling really informed the telling of Blood Orange when Grant pointed it out to me. I suppose I was unconsciously influenced by A Drifting Life, having read it right before I started working on the script. One of my biggest pet peeves with working in a contemporary art museum is unsuspecting visitors looking at a piece of art and asking “what does it mean?” or “what is the artist saying with this piece?” I always playfully answer, “well, what do you think it means?” or “how does it [some aspect of the content or execution] make you feel?” I play that game a while and then eventually come around to telling them that “good art” (if such a thing can be simplified and qualified in such terms) doesn’t tell you what the artist thinks or feels, it doesn’t tell you what to think or feel, it asks what the audience thinks or feels. Tatsumi is that rare artist who doesn’t preach a message, but invites you to consider your own thoughts about whatever subject matter he’s become fascinated and inspired by, and that process lends a timeless and enduring quality to his work.


My 13 Favorite Things of 2009 (Part 5 of 17)

The Hot Breath of War (Sparkplug Comic Books): For me and the small press, it was a good year in general. Whether it was new material from Tom Neely, Josh Cotter, and Ryan Claytor, or Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca announcing another project, the small press this year possessed a vibrancy and razor sharp series of insights that seemed to be so largely lacking in the more mainstream offerings. Portland based Sparkplug, in particular, put out another round of phenomenal books, including Sausage Hand, more issues of Elijah Brubaker’s Reich, and The Hot Breath of War by Trevor Alixopulos. I enjoyed Alixopulos’ debut work Mine Tonight a couple of years ago on a recommendation from Tim Goodyear, and have been long awaiting a follow up project. The Hot Breath of War delivered, though in an unexpected fashion. It’s full of smaller, often quieter, unrelated vignettes rather than the singular crime tale format that Mine Tonight worked in. Rather than depicting crime and all of the social implications it dredged up, The Hot Breath of War has a poetic, lyrical style to it that highlights the contradictions of life during war time. The short story “And His Breath is Hot” remains my favorite; if anything, proving Alixopulos’ versatility in other genres and formats. My personal desire to see more of his work has only emboldened with this divergent tale that disproves the artistic notion of a sophomore slump. I’d proudly pick up a regular series or future OGN from him. Furthermore, he strikes me as someone who could emulate the career-path of a creator like Becky Cloonan, who starts out with more intimate self-published work, but could blossom into crossover popularity with the right Vertigo property as his surprising and unique style continues to refine, finding a larger platform and the well-deserved audience that accompanies it.


Creator & Critic Explore Creation & Critique (Part 2 of 4)

In case you missed it, check out Part 1 in this series discussing the relationship between creators and critics in the comic book industry.

Justin: Ah, I remember that western song; that was funny! I think Kevin's feedback paid off, I think your work certainly grew to show a realistic balance of personal experiences.

I think I'm my own toughest critic as well; for example, finding typos after something has been posted just *kills* me. "How did I miss that?! Grrr!"

I have received some feedback that's stuck with me. I've had sort of an online relationship with Brian Wood, and then I finally met him in person at this year's San Diego Con. He said something to the effect of "there's a lot of people doing what you do, but not very well, you're one of the most articulate, well written, etc." Coming from a professional writer, one who I respect and am a fan of, that carried a lot of weight. But it's funny, because Brian has pushed back on some of my criticisms from time to time. When his DC/Vertigo series Northlanders began, I gave him some grief about his period characters speaking in modern parlance and he called me on it. But it was never adversarial or lacked civility, it was just him taking me down his path of reasoning and explaining an artistic choice he'd made. I had a better appreciation of the work because of it.

Another that springs to mind is a time that Steven Grant at CBR once put out a call for anyone still just doing weekly reviews, he perceived that there were few in the field still doing this, so I submitted 13 Minutes as an example. Ultimately, he did this quick round table of like the top 10 sites still doing weekly reviews, and linked to them. He ended his summary of 13 Minutes by saying that I "wasn't afraid to be opinionated" and that hit me hard. It gave me some focus. Keep doing it. Keep telling the truth as I see it.

Lastly, Kurt Busiek stopped by to correct me on something. I was writing some random piece about his Green Lantern strip in Wednesday Comics and made a passing reference to his work on The Brave & The Bold. Well, I know very well that was Mark Waid, I just totally brain-farted, rushed the post without proofing, and he was like "well, thanks for the kudos on Green Lantern, but yeah, The Brave & The Bold was Mark, not me." Haha! It was a minor mistake in the grand scheme of things, but embarrassing since I pride myself on getting the details right. You just eat humble pie, be gracious, smile, nod, and move on.

Aside from just the obvious need for accuracy and fact-checking, all of those experiences really just taught me to be precise. Am I actually saying what I mean to say, in the clearest way possible? Sometimes I have a tendency to flood my sentences with vocab and the meaning gets watered down. Sometimes something like "there's a high level of detail in these pencils" becomes "the efficacy of the line work is dramatically rendered in such a way as to heighten our..." and that's just kind of nebulous. Remember Hemingway, I say to myself sometimes. Short. Crisp. Declarative.

What about you, as a creator, have you ever pushed back on a critic's assessment of your work?

Moving on to another topic, I'm interested in any ethical dilemmas you may have encountered. Have you ever experienced any sort of conflict of interest where a review or interaction with a critic is concerned?

Ryan: In answer to the pushing back on a critic’s assessment, I have done that from time to time. I recall a pretty flippant and ignorant comment posted to a positive review I got. The person who commented must have only read the word “autobiography” and made a judgment, because his two cents was something like, “Sounds like Harvey Pekar. Already been done.” I wrote my master’s thesis on autobiography in comics, buddy. Don’t mess! :) Ha-ha! So, I wrote back (very diplomatically) and explained that while, yes, Harvey Pekar’s name is pretty much synonymous with autobio comics, it doesn’t mean there have not been new advances in the autobiographical comics genre. I pointed out a few reasons why my books were different and probably wrapped it up with something conciliatory like thanking him for taking the time to comment. Anyhow, it’s not often that I’ll rebut, but I felt like it was a grassroots opportunity to educate.

Anyhow, about the ethical dilemmas between myself and critics, I’m not sure what sort of ethical dilemmas I might have, if someone is willing to review my stuff. (Spoken like a self-promoting opportunist.) Can you give me an example of what you mean?

Justin: Well, I don't think you would ever do anything like this, but I once met a creator (who shall remain nameless) at an LCS signing. Essentially, he offered me a free copy of his book if I promised to give it a positive review. I explained that I didn't operate that way, that all I could guarantee was my honest reaction to the book, which may or may not be positive, but that I would promise to do a review, period. He seemed exasperated by this, as if I was the only one who'd ever rejected such an offer. I began to walk away; he called me back and we started haggling like it was a Persian Bazaar. What we ended up settling on was that if I liked it, I'd do a review, and if I didn't like it, I wouldn't post anything. In the end, the book was awful and I didn't post a review. I wanted to trash it, but figured I'd given my word and no exposure whatsoever was probably better punishment than even the bad press would have been. Again, I know a move like that isn't your style, but I'm wondering if you have encountered any type of conflict in the past?

That leads into my next question, which is how would you describe the relationship between creator and critic? Is it inherently adversarial or can it be symbiotic?

Ryan: Ha-ha! I was totally LOL-ing over that last story. What an awful and aggressive impression to leave with a reviewer. Do I have stories like that? God, no. At least I hope not! Maybe you’ll have to poll the reviewer community. Ha-ha. But, honestly, I think the most assertive I get with reviewers is giving them a free book and hoping for the best. So, I think I’m going to be a disappointment with regards to creator/reviewer drama-rama. Sorry.

On with the creator/reviewer relationship query. I’m starting to feel like these are loaded questions, Justin. Do you have more stories to get off your chest? :)

I’ve actually had pretty good relationships with reviewers. As I said before, even if it is not a glowing review, I respect them for giving me honest, critical feedback about my work. That’s what I want. That’s what makes us grow (as creators). If every reviewer pats the creators on their heads like mommy does, none of us will get any better. So, yes, even in situations where there is constructive critique of my work, I still view the feedback as valuable. This was the case with review site, Optical Sloth (as I mentioned above), and several others as well. So I’d cast my vote for the creator/reviewer relationship as being largely symbiotic. Or maybe I’ve fortuitously steered clear of enough snarky reviewers to be blissfully ignorant.

After you spin me your tale of adversarial creator/reviewer relationship woe, I’d like to hear about your criteria for a good comic. What special qualities, what sort of hutzpa, what characteristics do you look for in an “A+ reviewed” comic? Maybe this will act as an indirect constructive criticism to comic creators at large.