It’s the beginning of January, cold and dark where I am. The critics are all putting out their best of year lists, and maybe you’re looking for something to read. So here’s my entry into annual lists: 10 comics I liked in 2011 that I haven’t written about. Well 9 comics I haven’t written about and one that I did.
Archie: The Married Life, Vol. 1 (Archie Comics)
Archie is undergoing the same transition that other big comic publishers with long continuous histories are. As DC and Marvel break up marriages to restore the old magic, Archie Comics is marrying people up. Last year, Archie welcomed a new gay male character, Kevin Kelley, who will be marrying his partner, Clay, this year. And you might vaguely remember hearing that Archie married Veronica Lodge.
But Archie: The Married Life is a romance comic in much the same way that Watchmen is a superhero comic. See, Archie also married his other long time love-interest, Bettie Cooper, and Archie: TML follows parallel lives, one in which Archie and Veronica stay in Riverdale to work for Veronica’s father, and another, in which Archie and Bettie move to New York to pursue their dreams. The storylines alternate, showing the effects of the marriages on everyone around them, with some interesting parallels where characters make the same choices in both lives. Writers Michael Uslan and Paul Kupperberg handles this complex narrative deftly and unobtrusively. It’s also fascinating to see longtime Batman artist, Norm Breyfogle draw Jughead. Archie: TML is mature without being overwrought, angsty or salacious. And while it might be obvious that Archie couldn’t do that, this new Archie is so good, it seems more like a choice not to. Incidentally, both Marc Andreyko (Manhunter) and Comics Alliance‘s Chris Sims also recommmend it, which is what got me to check it out in the first place.
Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes (BOOM! Studios)
Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, writers; Gabriel Hardman, art.
I’ve been looking kind of sidelong at Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes at the comic book store, sitting coyly in its slot. I loved Planet of the Apes as a child. I watched the movies, the live-action tv-series, the cartoon. I ate the candy and longed for the action figures and playsets. I wanted to live in Ape City. And I was far more interested in the apes than the humans. So I have generally foregone recent Planet of the Apes comics because they were more often about how apes became the rulers of the world. BOOM!’s new Planet of the Apes series is solid, but Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes is exactly what I wanted and more. It’s also a crime comic. Set 20 years before the events of Planet of the Apes, Aleron, a lawyer and former general, is framed for the murder of an orangutan scientist. Aleron flees to find evidence proving his innocence. And none other than Dr. Zaius investigates. Since his work on Atlas, Gabriel Hardman is one of my favorite artists.
Black Dynamite: Slave Island (Ars Nova and Ape Entertainment)
Brian Ash, writer; Jun Lofamia, art; J.M. Ringuet, colors; story by Michael Jai White, Byron Minns and Scott Sanders; additional art by Scott Fuselier and Brian Ash
Black Dynamite: Slave Island is a very clever one-shot written as if it were part of a continuing series in the 1970s. Jun Lofumia‘s art is nicely retro 70s without being too much. And while, I go back and forth on whether I think it should be a longer miniseries or even a continuing series, this is one righteous shot of Michael Jai White’s Blaxploitation world, a world where Black Dynamite is badder than Shaft, Superfly and the Mack put together and has his own movie, comic book and cartoon. Black Dynamite is called in when a doctor discovers injuries on a man consistent with manacles and whipping. The man claims he’s escaped from an island slave plantation. Black Dynamite suits up and heads out to Slave Island, punching a shark along the way. I also really enjoyed the faux ads for impressing the ladies and not getting treated like a weakling. Solid.
Ed Brubaker, writer; Sean Phillips, art.
I want to say this is the best Criminal story arc yet, but every arc seems like the best. Criminal is always good. It’s probably the most solidly reliable comic of the last 10 years. The Last of the Innocent is probably the most structurally daring of Brubaker’s and Phillips’ work and, strangely enough, brings me back round to Archie again. In The Last of the Innocent, Brubaker writes a story straight out of Archie’s Riverdale. What if Archie had married Veronica and regretted it. And in case you don’t quite get that Brubaker’s building his story off of Archie, Phillips’ art in the sections where the protagonist remembers his halcyon small town days make it oh so clear. (Though I do think there is a little of Spider-Man’s Mary Jane in the good girl love interest, Liz). It’s an ambitious and successful book.
Infinite Kung Fu (Top Shelf)
I wrote about Infinite Kung Fu a little last summer, but I’m recommending it again. Infinite Kung Fu is an epic masterpiece of Kung Fu zomibie-fighting with a lovely brushwork style. And I’m serious about epic–the world is threatened, there are armies and competing powers and the book is over 400 pages long. It’s a nice twist on the traditional wuxia epic novel.
Chris Roberson, writer; Mike Allred, art; Laura Allred, colors; Todd Klein, letters.
I hate to say this, but I had kind of given up on Mike Allred. He still makes some of my favorite art, but after The Golden Plates, his attempt to make a comic book version of the Book of Mormon, it seemed like some of the snap had gone out of his stories. But Allred’s snap is back with iZombie a comic written by Chris Roberson that has so much of the fun of the old Mad Man comics that I would’ve thought Allred had written it. But where Mad Man was science fiction—or maybe mad science fiction—iZombie is That Girl horror, or maybe Mary Tyler Moore. Will Gwen Dylan the zombie, Ellie the ghost and Scott, the were-terrier make it after all? Love is all around.
Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays 1944-1949 (IDW Publishing /The Library of American Comics) Tarpé Mills, writer and artist; Trina Robbins, editor.
Before Catwoman, before even Wonder Woman, there was Tarpé Mills’ Miss Fury, a society woman battling injustice. IDW has collected full color Sunday strips of comics’ first female hero openly written by a woman. In this era of lovely comic collections, I think this is the first I’ve seen with audacious leopard print end papers. They suit the stylish adventures of Marla Drake, Miss Fury. Drake inherits a magical, possibly cursed, panther skin from her uncle and dons it as the Nazi-fighting and gang-busting Miss Fury. (I suspect it’s cursed because her uncle stole it from a ritual specialist).
I like Miss Fury more than Terry and the Pirates, and not just because of the pain Connie causes me. I like it because one of Miss Fury’s nemeses, Baroness Erica von Kampf conks a fellow Nazi spy over the head and turns on the gas in his kitchenette as she walks out of his apartment with a suitcase full of money. Now that’s a femme fatale. I like her other nemeses too as well as her love interests. I like the complex storylines. I like it because it’s sexy without being sleazy or stupid. And I love that Miss Fury’s panther costume has little clawed feet. I expect any day now, Grant Morrison will be using Baroness Erica von Kampf. There’s no way he can resist her name, let alone her sharp plantinum bangs concealing a swastika brand. And I’m almost positive that Richard Sala was a fan.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (Drawn & Quarterly) Shigeru Mizuki
An affecting and elegaic account of serving in the Japanese Imperial Army in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War. The soldiers are starving, killed by malaria, dengue fever and crocodiles, harassed and abused by their superiors, and ultimately sent to their deaths because of a commander’s pride. Mizuki’s cartoonish drawings of his characters humanizes them more than if he had rendered them realistically against the ghostly, faceless enemy and his exquisitely detailed naturalistic backgrounds. Mizuki includes some gorgeously detailed nature studies and horrific drawings of war and the dead.
The Hidden (Fantagraphics)
The world is ending in madness and blood, as a bearded man flees to the countryside. But what does he know about the end and why is it mostly nubile young women who are being killed? Another tale of mayhem, mystery and mad science from Richard Sala. Very much in the line of classic Universal Studios horror, especially Frankenstein. But while the subject matter and the content is very much the same as in his previous books, Sala’s style has changed considerably from his early, cramped single page comics. The Hidden has less dialogue and exposition and more silent panels than much of Sala’s previous work—except in one very funny use of crowded panels for a character who is over-sharing. And while I still miss his scratchy blacks, I’m excited by his move into color and return to full length graphic novels.
The Olympians: Hades: Lord of the Dead (First Second)
Hades gets a hard time. First his brother screws him taking the Underworld as his domain. And now, in popular culture, he’s often portrayed as evil. Hades is lonely in Hades and decides to kidnap Demeter’s daughter, Kore. The goddess of agriculture, Demeter wants Kore back and withholds all bounty until Kore is returned. Meanwhile, Kore is busy becoming Persephone. But how come no one saw the kidnapping? And why does Persephone stay in Hades? What starts of as a story about Hades becomes one of the most interesting takes on Persephone I’ve read. And for you fans of Classical Mythology there’s a nice Hekate visual gag—well, academic joke—that is pretty sweet.
Carol Borden also liked Locke & Key and Secret Six, which has sadly ended. She wrote about both in 2011. Carol received review copies of both Infinite Kung Fu and The Olympians: Hades: Lord of the Dead.