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The Best Single Issues of 2006

I’m doing more and more reading in collected and OGN format these days, but some books just demand to be read the very day they come out in the single-issue format. Here are the top five from 2006:

Blue Beetle #7, by John Rogers and Cully Hamner. Yes, I’m as shocked as anyone that I not only tolerated, but really enjoyed a book that had “Infinite Crisis” printed on the cover. It could have been the end of Blue Beetle for me – the book had been suffering from some sluggish pacing and unfortunate fill-in art. But John Rogers’ first solo writing effort on the book turned me around completely: This may flash back to Beetle’s role in DC’s mega crossover, but it makes it all so much fun: This is a book about a kid with an alien suit of armour who’s recruited by Batman to go up to a space station and fight a bunch of killer robots. It’s got action, it’s got Batman and Green Arrow being funny, and it’s a nice piece of character work to boot. If this story had come a few issues earlier, the book’s sales might not be in such a bad place right now.

Nextwave #10, by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen. Nextwave has been a fun ride, with every issue better than the last. Honestly, I could have picked two or three different issues. This one stands out, though, because Stuart Immonen demonstrates that he’s not just very good – he’s totally awesome. After a vicious assault by Forbush Man (yes, Warren Ellis trotted out the star of Marvel’s old parody book as a major villain), the members of their team re-live alternate versions of their lives, and Immonen turns in note-perfect impersonations of other artists for each story: Monica’s other life as Captain Marvel is in the style of Paul Pope, Machine Man is as envisioned by Daniel Clowes, The Captain appears in John Paul Leon’s Earth X, and Elsa Bloodstone stars in a Mike Mignola monster mash. It’s the perfect display of clever insanity that makes Nextwave so great, and shows off that Immonen is even better than everyone thought he was.

All-Star Superman #5, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Another book that’s very good on a bad month, and simply divine on a good one, and this issue may be the best. It’s all about Lex Luthor, as Clark Kent travels to death row for an interview with the criminal genius. Luthor expounds his many views for the mild-mannered Kent, and naturally all of them go back to Superman, who doesn’t even appear in this issue. Instead, poor Clark has to repeatedly, and accidentally, save Luthor’s life from electrocution and a Parasite-induced prison riot. It’s a great issue that helps to humanize the still-villainous Luthor and show off some beautifully subtle art by Frank Quitely, who has to draw all sorts of action and adventure without really showing any of it. Also, it has a baboon in a Superman costume and Lex Luthor drawing on a sinister eyebrow. It may not always have Superman in it, but this is still the best Superman book anyone’s seen for many years.

Seven Soldiers #1, by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III. And here we have the long-delayed conclusion to Morrison’s epic, the only comics crossover that anyone needs to read. I could be negative and point out that this issue is only partly successful in capping off the 30-part story, that Morrison tries to do too much in too little space, and that it makes Mr. Miracle seem even more flawed, and it would all be true. But even so, this book is one of the most ambitious and accomplished failures you’re likely to read. The obvious and easiest selling point is the brilliant work of J.H. Williams. Like Immonen on Nextwave – but even better – he effortlessly assumes the styles of the artists on each of the Seven Soldiers minis, as well as a great Jack Kirby riff and some gorgeous styles of his own. Williams is one of the very best artists the industry has seen in some time, and this book shows off why. And while Morrison doesn’t quite cap things off perfectly, he comes so close; after a year of reading Seven Soldiers, I was wondering how on Earth he’d tie it all together in one, single issue; that he came anywhere near doing it is impressive as hell. Even if it feels rushed and overly compressed, it’s still a great story with action, epic scope, treachery, redemption, and heroic sacrifices.

Local #3, by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly. Legendary indie band Theories and Defences returns home to Richmond to disband after a successful career, and Wood actually tells four separate stories: Frontman Frank does an interview, bassist Bridget tries to reconnect with an old love, drummer Kevin tries to make some extra cash, and guitarist Ross plays a solo show at a small club. It’s a perfect slice-of-life story, the sort Adrian Tomine does so well in Optic Nerve, about the end of one life and the beginning of another. Like much of Local, it’s about changing your life and taking responsibility for yourself, and as Wood usually shows us, some people are better at it than others. It’s a very simple story that packs a lot into one single issue; in a few short pages for each band member, Wood and Kelly tell us all we need to know about them and where they are in their lives.

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Free Comics!

No, settle down. I’m not giving you anything.

However, the lineup for Free Comic Book Day 2007 was announced this week, and there are some pretty nifty books that you can get totally for free! The big publishers seem to be putting out a bunch of generic stuff, but as usual, it’s the smaller offerings that are the most interesting:

  • The Unseen Peanuts – Fantagraphics. A collection of over 100 old strips that have never been reprinted. That’s a pretty awesome offering, and it’s gonna make me want to pick up the gorgeous collections.
  • The Train was Bang on Time – :01 Second. A preview of Eddie Campbell’s new graphic novel. (and I still haven’t even bought his last one!)
  • Comics Festival – the book of the 2007 Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Probably the book to get your hands on: Stories by Bryan O’Malley, Hope Larson, Darwyn Cooke, and others. The 2005 edition was awesome, and I expect nothing less from this one.
  • Whiteout #1 – Oni Press. Kind of an odd reprint choice – is there a movie in development? – but a book I’ve always meant to read. A murder-mystery in Antarctica, by the writer of Queen & Country? I’m in. (Still, I wonder if Oni might have been better off with Local or something more recent; last year they had an all-new Scott Pilgrim story, which was pretty awesome)
  • Owly & Korgi – Top Shelf. Owly is the cutest thing ever. You may scoff and say you’re not interested in the adventures of a friendly owl and his woodland friends, but this book will turn you around. I don’t know much about Korgi, but if it’s being packaged with Owly, it can’t be all bad. (This is probably a much more family-friendly offering than a Lost Girls/Superf*ckers preview…)
  • Wizard’s “How to Draw” Sampler – Wizard. Hah. No, not really. “Draw bigger tits. More grimacing. Why doesn’t that costume have more pouches?” Pshaw.

If you’ve got a good comic shop around, you’ll be able to get these awesome books on May 5th. If your comic shop is just so-so, tell them you want the good stuff. Particularly Comics Festival – that one is going to rock.

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Bye Bye to Boys; Something up at Wildstorm?

According to Newsarama, Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson’s The Boys has been cancelled by DC. Not just regular cancelled, but really cancelled – the next four issues which had been solicited, as well as the first paperback collection, won’t ship.

I can’t say I’m at all disappointed (my thoughts on the first few issues are here), but this is a pretty surprising decision. The Boys was probably Wildstorm’s only unqualified hit of the past year or two; a cancellation suggests either serious creative differences (Darick Robertson’s sole comment thus far is that “DC was not the right home for The Boys.”) or that some upper-echelon DC or Time-Warner exec found out about the book and demanded it get the boot.

Or perhaps there’s something else going on (that probably involves any number of other factors). This week on his mailing list, Warren Ellis mentioned that the next issue of the Wildstorm-published Desolation Jones hadn’t been solicited, for reasons that would become apparent later – suggesting there’s some sort of announcement to be made. (Though he specified it’s not an artist change, and just today denied the book would go over to Vertigo)

So I wonder if there’s something going down at Wildstorm beyond just The Boys; a reorganization of some sort that didn’t include Ennis & Robertson’s book. It’s not hard to call the last year a disappointment for Wildstorm: The relaunch of their superhero line was underwhelming to say the least, and a complete disaster given the disappearance of its two flagship titles. Some sort of re-branding, along with an editorial cull (of both books and personnel), might be in order.

It should be interesting to see what comes to light over the next few days.

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Studio 60 Gets off on the Wrong Foot. Again.

As I’ve said before, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is full of potential, but seems to have problems making good on it. That trend seemed to be reversed in the last few episodes, culminating in the fantastic Christmas episode. Finally, it looked like the show was hitting its stride: The show effectively spread the work around the ensemble cast, Sorkin wasn’t forcing one or two plots to dominate the show, and chemistry among the characters was working on all cylinders.

But the first episode after the Xmas break, Monday, seems to be another setback. It’s better than most of the early episodes, but displays more uncertainty than one would expect from Sorkin.

For one thing, Matt & Harriet seem to be back to their bickering. After The Kiss on the Christmas episode, one would think their relationship might move forward, but apparently not. On the up side, it doesn’t dominate the show like it did earlier on, and it does create a fun subplot with Matt bidding on charity auction for a date with Harriet, with the proceeds going to a Christian-run “Abstinence for Teens” organization.

Things begin to fall off the rails with the introduction of Hallie, the new VP of “Alternative Programming” – or, much to Jordan’s chagrin, reality TV. Her role is simply too obvious: She’s Jordan’s new adversary. She’s all about Reality TV, while Jordan hates it. But because she’s obviously Jordan’s foil, and we’re supposed to like Jordan, she comes off as automatically unlikeable, even after Jordan is an unprovoked bitch towards her. It doesn’t help that the general operation of the network detracts from Studio 60‘s focus on producing a late-night comedy show. The “Reality TV is bad” angle is just too simple, as is the seemingly inevitable compromise Jordan must come to in overcoming her prejudices. Hallie is a very clumsy and unlikeable stand-in for Ainsley Hayes, The West Wing‘s resident loveable Republican sex kitten.

As much as I don’t like Studio 60 losing focus on the TV show itself, by far the strongest aspect of Monday was Jack Rudolph’s ongoing effort to face down the board of directors, who want him to give in and accept a fine for airing an obscenity during a live newscast. Steven Webber has quickly set himself apart as one of the best actors on the show, and he’s been gradually giving Rudolph more dimension and life: He started out as a fairly one-dimensional (yet frequently hilarious) executive sterotype, but he’s increasingly been forced to break out of that mold. While Rudolph has traditionally been the most important person in any room, Sorkin now puts him on the defensive: He has to plead his case to the board of directors (even if diplomacy isn’t his forté), and then come up with a new plan to save both his ethics and, most likely, his job. It’s a great twist for the previously invincible character, and Webber pulls it off beautifully.

The Jordan/Danny relationship takes a very odd turn here. It was nicely built before the break, but one wonders if Sorkin hasn’t reconsidered the whole thing now; that, or he’s grossly miscalculated his dialogue and Bradley Whitford’s performance. It wasn’t hard to see a bit of an obsessive streak in Danny during The Christmas Show, but it was in that cute and loveable manner Whitford does so well. But here, he verges into distinctly creepy territory. It’s probably true that Jordan is rejecting him based more on their respective situations than on anything personal, but if Sorkin and Whitford are aiming for “charming and convincing”, they’ve missed their mark pretty badly. If they’re really aiming for something darker, it could be interesting, but they’re definitely treading a fine line. This is the one plot thread that needed more time to develop and digest – time that could have easily been found by dispensing with Hallie and her “Alternative Programming.”

There are a lot of plot threads that only begin here, and will obviously require more development: The potential romance between Tom and Lucy, as well as the falling out of Simon and Darius. The brief pitch session for Dylan’s “Husky Gymnast” is a highlight, proving if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Mark McKinney needs to be on screen much, much more.

There’s still so much potential on display, and it continues to make the show fairly frustrating to watch. It looked like everything was pulling together, but Sorkin couldn’t resist rocking the boat.

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Ignorant and Proud: If I Haven’t Read It, It Hasn’t Been Done

I have a fantastic idea for a science fiction story.

It’s about this guy who’s recruited by a couple aliens to go and explore a mysterious and ancient structure that’s been discovered. It’s built in the shape of a massive ring around a star, and it’s full of all sorts of strange creatures. I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi, but I can tell you this is an awesome and original idea.

Now, if I were serious about that, you would be quite correct in assuming I’m a moron. My “idea” isn’t even remotely original – it’s essentially Larry Niven’s Ringworld. It was published in 1970, and in the 30 years since there have been several sequels and any number of variations on the “ancient cosmic structure” theme. Whether I’ve read 100 science fiction books or none, my idea has been done many times before. One of the most important rules of being a writer is to read as much as possible – if you’re not doing some sort of research, how can you expect to do anything new or original? Robert Sawyer makes this point in a review of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake — Atwood seems so desperate to avoid being seen as a “science fiction author” that she ends up practically ignoring past work in the field and presents her ideas as original and groundbreaking when they’ve been done many times before.

This all leads to an article in the Toronto Star about the return of Heroes (accompanied by a Cameron Stewart illustration). Creator Tim Kring makes many of the same comments I referred to a couple months ago: Essentially, he claims to be radically overhauling the superhero genre. What’s worse, the Star seems to agree with him:

The freshness of Kring’s approach – no capes, no secret identities, just danger and mystery – has reached beyond the comic-book geeks to thrill a mainstream audience. No surprise that Kring himself has no deep ties to the comics heroes of yore.

“Because I don’t have a vast knowledge of the superhero genre, I kept finding I was reinventing the wheel over and over again.”

It’s one thing to take an idea that’s been done before and try and put a new spin on it. It’s entirely another to claim you invented it entirely on your own. The premise of Heroes, of regular people with super powers has been done many, many, many times. As early as Marvel’s New Universe line, up to the more recent Rising Stars, Supreme Power, or even Demo. Much of Wildstorm‘s recent output has been based on a world with superpowers and vigilantes, but without as much emphasis on costumes and traditional clichés, with Wildcats 3.0 being probably the best example.

Kring cites The Incredibles as one of his primary inspirations for Heroes, and it would be hard to do better for a film version of superhero themes. but The Incredibles is itself a mix of Fantastic Four and Watchmen, among others. In taking that film as a starting point and adding his own “twist” to the genre, Kring is missing out on decades of evolution within the genre. He’s obviously not obligated to read every superhero comic out there, but neither should he be passing off his ignorance as a virtue. He’s merely the latest in a long, long line of writers and artists to modify the superhero formula, to modernize the spandex and superpower stories that have been around for 60 years.

Heroes has its strengths and weaknesses, but to claim it’s truly revolutionary in any sense is pure ego. It’s good that Kring isn’t mired in faithfulness to the past like many comics publishers, but he should at least show a passing interest in the genre he claims to be revitalizing and acknowledge some of the many works that paved the way for Heroes‘ success.

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Long Time Coming: The Long-awaited Kid Amazo

Back in 2004, DC announced a JLA original graphic novel by Peter Milligan and Rob Haynes. It was supposed to come out in May, 2004. Except it didn’t.

It was briefly announced for a JLA: Classified arc late last year, but quickly replaced by something else. (Howard Chaykin, I guess?)

Now, finally – perhaps – it’s scheduled to start in April’s JLA: Classified #37. With a new artist, at that – Carlos D’Anda.

I hope some day DC will explain the road the project took – low orders or problems with Haynes? – but for now, I’m happy to see it make it into print. It’s been too long since I’ve read a new Milligan book, so hopefully this will fill the gap until a new Vertigo or Wildstorm project pops up. Granted, Milligan’s not the ideal writer to handle JLA, but hopefully some of his original wacky vision will survive the new format and artist.

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Why the Challengers of the Unknown Deserve to be Comic Book Superstars

All right, I admit it’s probably a bit strange: In the last week or so, I’ve put up two covers from Challengers of the Unknown, a relatively obscure series from the fifties & sixties. But let me tell you: The Challengers are pretty darn cool. My main introduction came in Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, and if you think they’re cool there, wait until you see their own adventures in Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown. Lots and lots of crazy, sci-fi, superhero fun, like:

  • Professor Haley’s lightning-quick, wholly unscientific, deductions!
  • June Robbins’ in-your-face brand of feminism!
  • June Robbins apparently confusing computers with fortune cookies!
  • Rapid-fire acceptance of death, replacement, and rebirth!
  • Jack Kirby!
    (Don’t get me wrong: Challengers isn’t Kirby’s best work by a long shot. But every now and then he turns in a panel or a page that shows off his rapidly developing style and vision.)

And the real kicker? All these completely awesome and unbelievable moments come from the Challengers’ first two appearances, in Showcase Presents #6-7. And how can you not get excited for their third story, entitled The Day the Earth Blew Up!? (Spoiler: It doesn’t actually blow up.)

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Books in 2007

I don’t write about books here very much, though I’m going to try and change that. I suppose they take a lot more time, both to read and to process, than most comics and movies, and I’m very, very lazy much of the time. I also tend not to read a lot of new books – generally only my favourite authors, and even fewer than that lure me into buy a hardcover – and it feels kind of odd blogging about a book that came out two or three years ago. But whatever.

2007 already has three books I’ll be looking forward to, and will probably lure me into the bookstore soon after release:

  • Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville
  • Black Man, by Richard K. Morgan
  • Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis
  • You Suck, by Chrisopher Moore. (a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, from what I can gather)
  • English translation of After Dark, by Haruki Murakami.

Plus probably other stuff I haven’t even heard of, since I don’t pay huge attention to press and news from the literary world. Good reading ahead, and hopefully some relatively suck-free blogging)

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Early Contender for “Least Surprising Revelation of 2007”

In an interview at Newsarama, cover artist Greg Horn reveals one of the secrets of his success:

There is no set model for Ms. Marvel, but for other characters like Emma Frost, I had a model pose for me in a string bikini.

Mind you, Horn is actually a pretty decent artist when he stays away from the gratuitous cheesecake: Some of his Emma Frost covers were nice once he stopped drawing porn stars, and his Elektra work was nice when Elektra wasn’t threatening to kill the reader by smothering them in her breasts, ass, or crotch.

There’s little question about what pays the rent, though.

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