Saturday, 21 January 2012

My Top 5 Comic Books of 2011

2011 has been a bumper year for comics. With the re-launch of 52 DC titles to much fanfare, a few relaunched titles from Marvel with much less fanfare, a slew of great independent publishers producing great books, and some truly outstanding single issues, mini-series and brilliant on-going series. I was going to pick a top ten (which would have been easy to do) but I decided to make life hard for myself. To be honest on another day a totally different top 5 could be here. There's just been so many good comics this year. Anyway, let's kick off with:

5. The Punisher. Greg Rucka, Writer. Marco Checchetto, Artist. Matt Hollingworth, Colour Artist.

Frank Castle, as written by Greg Rucka, is a great character. A true anti-hero in the comic book world. Punisher is not a character I’d read much of until now. This relaunched Punisher, written by Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, is a brilliant introduction to the character. And I have huge respect for a comic book writer who gives his main character no dialogue at all in the first 3 issues. It’s risky move, but calculated because it works brilliantly. Frank Castle is a man of action, defined by his obsessive need to avenge his family’s death. And the illustrations by Checchetto give him all the voice he needs. I’ve really enjoyed reading Punisher and it looks gorgeous. Which is why it is one of my top 5 books of the year.

4. Animal Man. Jeff Lemire, Writer. Travel Foreman, Artist.

I wasn’t really familiar with Animal Man until I started reading Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman’s DC New 52 version. What a great character he is, written beautifully by Lemire, and drawn spectacularly by Foreman. It’s refreshing to see a superhero from a different perspective; in this case through the lens of his long-suffering family. Buddy Baker is a family man. This is unusual for a superhero and it’s really interesting to see how his life as a superhero interacts with his life as a husband and father. Jeff Lemire is doing a wonderful job in creating a believable world for Animal Man, even when it delves into the Red, the lifeblood, with fantastical accompanying images by Travel Foreman. Foreman’s art seems to be something people absolutely love, or just can’t get with. I love it. It’s weird, wonderful and a refreshing change from typical superhero imagery. Judge for yourself below. I’m really enjoying Animal Man, and can’t wait to see where these guys take him.  

3. Batwoman. JH Williams III, Co-Writer, Artist. W. Haden Blackman, Co-Writer. 

Wow. Just wow. A review of JH Williams III’s Batwoman could just consist of images from the comic itself. They would be enough to make anybody go and seek it out. But I’ll say a few words too. This was one of the most eagerly anticipated New 52 titles from DC, and it has certainly lived up to the hype. It is one of the most beautiful comic books I have ever held in my hands. Williams’ artwork is extraordinary, and to produce this level of art every month and sell it for $2.99 a pop. Man, that’s astonishing. The writing, by Williams and W. Haden Blackman, is brilliant too and shouldn’t be overlooked. Kate Kane is a complex character. She is flawed, like most superheroes, and I’m eager to see how she develops. To have a lesbian comic book character right at the heart of DC’s mainstream line is something to be celebrated. I look forward to Batwoman every month, and that’s how it should be with comics.

 2. Batman. Scott Snyder, Writer. Greg Capullo, Artist. 

First off, Batman is and has always been my favourite comic book character. I’ve got more Batman comics than any others. I love the films (most of them anyway) The first comics I ever read were the Fleetway Editions Batman comics that I used to buy at my local newsagent when I was about 10 years old. The Dark Knight has been with me for most of my life. So yeah. I’ve got a lot of love for the Bat. When I heard that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo were going to be the creative team on the New 52 Batman, I knew that the character was going to be in good hands. Snyder’s run on Detective Comics had been very well received, and rightly so. Snyder brings the detective element of the character to the fore, and for me, as a crime fiction fan, that’s great. In the new Batman the dark elements are present and correct, and the run has started off with a cracking story involving the very sinister Court of Owls. The most recent issue, number 5, was absolutely astounding. Batman is shown to be vulnerable, cracking from lack of sleep, and paranoid and, dare I say it, a little bit scared, in a horrendously disorienting labyrinth. Batman scared? No way. Well he’s damn close to being scared. I was terrified reading it. The way Capullo has drawn this issue is brilliant, turning the pages on their side and then upside down, and back again. I got so engrossed in the story, that I went backwards and re-read a double page spread before I realised. The detail in the panels is painstaking and I’m sure I’ll need to read it a few more times before it all sinks in. So yeah, Batman’s in good hands. But it didn’t quite make my number 1 spot.

And so to my, and many other people's, number 1 comic of 2011:

1. Daredevil. Mark Waid, Writer. Paulo Rivera, Artist. Marcos Martin, Artist. 

What can I say about this comic which hasn’t already been said over and over again by numerous reviews, comic blogs, die-hard fans and recent converts? Probably nothing new. But you know what? The relaunched Daredevil, written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin, is so damn good that all the praise that’s been heaped upon it bears repeating. DC’s line wide relaunch may have been the biggest ‘event’ of 2011, but the best comic relaunch, by a mile, was Daredevil. I’ve always been a fan of the horned red fella, and I really enjoyed Bendis’ run a few years ago. What Mark Waid has done with this latest re-launch is to bring the fun back. Big Time. The scene with Matt Murdock walking into a room full of party-goers wearing a jumper emblazoned with the words “I’m Not Daredevil” may be one of my favourite images in a comic book ever, never mind last year. 

After everything the character has been through it’s really refreshing to see a lighter side coming out, without it seeming forced or awkward. Waid truly has done a fantastic job here, and I’m grateful for it. As for the artwork on this book. Well, the quality of the writing is equalled by the beautiful illustrations of Rivera and Martin, who have shared the art duties on the book. Just take the cover of issue 7 by Rivera, which has Daredevil lying on a snow-covered roof making a snow angel. And he’s grinning like a crazy person! The fun I was talking about. That’s it right there. Beautiful. 

Reading Daredevil is so much fun, and it’s an experience like I used to have when I first started reading comics over twenty years ago. Right down to the fact it has a proper letters page. I miss letters pages at the back of comics. It enhances the overall experience I think. With Daredevil Waid, Rivera and Martin have created a comic that deserves to be read, enjoyed and loved by a wider audience than just comic book fans. If you’ve never read a comic book in your life or you’ve fallen out of the habit, I urge you to pick up Daredevil. You’ll fall in love. Guaranteed.

So that's it. A little later than I'd planned! As I said it would have been easy to do a top ten, and more. It's been a great year for comics. Hopefully 2012 will be bigger and better.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Where have all these vampires come from?

Warning: Contains some graphic, possibly disturbing, imagery.

I don’t know how it happened but by the end of 2011 I seemed to be reading more vampire comics than I ever have before. I know the popularity of all things vampire has surged again recently with the Twilight books and films, and True Blood on TV, among other things. But it just seems that I have been stealthily assaulted with a steady stream of vampire comic books, both established titles which I have just discovered, and new on-going series and mini-series. And you know what. I’m thoroughly enjoying all of them. And that’s the thing that surprises me most.

I’ve never really been a big vampire fan, although I’ve always recognised the appeal. I like the Dracula/Vlad The Impaler myth, and the themes of the vampire related books and movies I read and watched growing up held a certain fascination. Actually, one of my favourite films when I was a teenager was The Lost Boys. And I will admit to sitting through Coppolla’s Dracula film more than once. So, okay, I’m not a huge fan of vampires, but clearly I didn’t go out of my way to avoid vampire related stuff. But as I said, over the last six months I’ve been reading so many vampire related comic books, and on the whole they’ve been way above average, some outstanding. In fact three of my top ten comics of 2011 have featured vampires.

I started off the year reading Justin Cronin’s excellent novel The Passage. If you haven’t read this book you need to stop everything, get a copy and read it. Simple as that. It is amazing. It’s a monster of a novel, filled with original ideas on a subject which has been around for hundreds of years and has been written about countless times. I won’t give anything away about the plot, but I will say that I pretty much put my life on hold while I read it, and some of the characters stayed with me for weeks, if not months. I envy anybody who hasn’t read it, because they get to experience the joy I felt while reading it. I’m just thankful he’s publishing a sequel this year called The Twelve. So excited about that. You can find more info about The Passage and The Twelve here

I also watched for the first time the brilliant film 30 Days of Night. A gripping film with an original, exciting premise, and some truly terrifying vampire monsters. I shudder just thinking about the way they move and sniff the air when they get the scent of a human. Brrrr. Watching this film led me to the comic it was based on. Created by writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith, 30 days of Night was a breakthrough work for both guys. It’s not hard to see why. The writing is filled with tension; even having seen the film and knowing what’s coming, it’s terrifying to see the unwitting inhabitants of Barrow, Alaska, completely unaware of the Hell which is about to descend on them. If you enjoyed the film you’ll love the comic. There have been numerous spin-offs and mini-series form the original comic. Most recently there has been a mini-series written by Joe Lansdale, and there is a current ongoing series written by Steve Niles and illustrated by the ever fantastic Sam Keith. It is published, like all first series by the brilliant IDW. Find out more here

Another well established vampire comic book which I recently started reading is American Vampire. Created by writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque the first five issues featured two stories, one of which was written by Stephen King (himself no stranger to vampires, ‘Salem’s Lot being in my imminent read pile – I just can’t get enough vampires!) American Vampire is an ongoing series and is one of my current favourite comic books that I’m reading regularly. Snyder is an amazing writer who has created some unforgettable characters. Each story arc is set in a different era. The new story arc which began in the most recent issue #22, is set in the 1950’s. If the first part is anything to go by it’s going to be a blast. Featuring a young, cocky vampire hunter with a cause, named Travis Kidd, the writer and artist seem to have so much fun creating their little slice of 1950’s America - hot-rods, mini-skirts, diners and all – that you can’t help having fun while reading it. Snyder is so good at drawing you into his world, and the artists just top it off. American Vampire is a really great comic book, which seems to be getting better, and it is one of my top ten comics of the year.

Which leads me to another of my top ten comic books of the year, and one of the biggest surprises from DC’s “New 52” re-launch. (See my earlier posts on this subject.)

I, Vampire, written by Joshua Hale Fialkov and beautifully illustrated by Andrea Sorrentino was a title that I wasn’t really that interested in when the relaunch was first announced. I, and a lot of people I spoke to at the time couldn’t really see it taking off and I even thought it might be one of the first titles to be cancelled early. But as more and more preview pages got released ahead of the first issue my interest in the title started to pick up and I decided to give the first issue a try. I am so glad I did. Originally created by J.M Dematteis in the early ‘80’s, it features protagonist Andrew Bennett, a character with the powers and weaknesses of a vampire, who resists his base instincts and has vowed only to drink animal blood and human blood taken from blood donor centres. The first issue of the re-launched title reveals a little of his history and his relationship with Mary, Queen of Blood. By the end of the first issue battle lines have been drawn, and we know we are in for an almighty fight between these two characters, whose lives are entwined by centuries of history.

Finally, released in December of last year was the first issue of The Strain, a comic book based on the novel of the same name by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The comic book is written by David Lapham and illustrated by Mike Huddlestone. The first issue was an introduction to the main character in the story and really set the scene for the series. It was very atmospheric and did a good job of getting me interested enough to get on board for the next installment. It also got me interested in reading the original novel, which turns out to be the first of a trilogy.

So it looks like 2012 is going to be a year of vampires for too. At least for me. If the quality of the comics and books is as high as what I read in 2011 then I’ll be happy to develop my vampire addiction and really sink my teeth into some blood-sucking tales. (I had to have one lame pun in there. Come on!)

For vampire, and non-vampire related comic book action I recommend and – both brilliant sources of all comic book news, as well as film, TV and other stuff.