Julie’s Top 10 Comics of 2011!

It’s that time of year again! Where, as the end of the year approaches, we cling on desperately to the memories of the last 12 months, already nostalgic for the most possible recent past! Hooray!
And with that in mind, here I am again to count down the top 10 best comics of the last year, putting them up on the mantle, and silently nodding in admiration.

As always, I’ll note that as a rule, I don’t put anything that made this list last year in the top 10. I note this largely as an apology to “Amazing Spider-man”, which was so awesome this year, mostly due to the big“Spider-Island” story, which was probably the best “event” comic I’ve ever read. Bravo.

But beyond that, let’s get to the list!

#10 – Batgirl Volume 3 – DC Comics
Writer: Bryan Q. Miller
Artists: Dustin Nguyen, Pere Pérez, Ramon Bachs

When it came to superhero comics this past year, the overarching theme for me was books that were willing to let themselves just be fun, all-ages friendly, big silly comic books. Batgirlis one of the best examples of the trend. It also meets another popular trend, being an awesome book I was late to the game on, and only started reading mere months before it’s inevitable cancellation! So that’s great.

Starring Stephanie Brown, formally the Spoiler, as the new Batgirl in town, this series was a non-stop good time. Mostly made up of smaller, 1-3 issue stories, the book sling-shot between Batgirl’s fights with original villains working for an evil campus-based cult, the wackiest team-ups possible with dudes like Klarion the Witch Boy, and her attempts at normal college life.

With much conversation this year about…. less then stellar female leads in some comics, it’s important to shine focus on the good ones. As the brighter, happier black sheep of the Batman family, Stephanie isn’t the most pathos-laden protagonist, but she’s a great, relatable character that’s always fun to read about. Fun is the secret word of the day you guys.

#9 – Osborn Marvel Comics
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Artist: Emma Rios

I didn’t catch this mini until it was released in trade, but I’m glad I did. After his incarceration at the end of the last big event book, big bad and “former” Green Goblin Norman Osborn finds himself locked up in the most secret, high-security prison in America. What follows is several issues of twisted psychos, political machinations, and one hell of a prison break.

Despite the title, “Osborn” has a few different central characters. Along with Norman getting to know his various cellmates, which include an ancient spider-god and a sociopathic genetics doctor, we also follow Spider-man supporting character Nora Winters, as she tries to dig up the dirt on what the government did with Osborn, and Senator Sondra Muffoletto, who must deal with the guilt and repercussions of locking Osborn up in a politically shady secret prison.

It’s the clashing character viewpoints that really sell this story. Marvel’s has been pushing Norman Osborn into a much bigger role in the Marvel U, and trying to make him into a more grey area antagonist at the same time. This is maybe the best effort at the latter, taking what we normally think of as a hand-wringing evil character, and making his train of thought a little clearer. The unexpected political angle of the story also does a great job keeping it from being a black and white conflict, as Osborn has a very valid point that he’s being detained illegally.

Emma Rios was one of my biggest surprises of the year, both on this book, and Spider-Island: Cloak and Dagger later on in the calender. He style took a little while to grow on me, but she’s quickly become one of my new favorite’s, with loose pencils and strange-yet-organic layouts. Can’t wait to see more from her!

Osborn

#8 – CASANOVA AVARITIA Icon Comics
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Gabriel Bà

CASANOVA is more than a little bit insane. This isn’t a shocking revelation to anyone who’s read the previous volumes, but even still,AVARITA still does it’s beat to break new ground in the crazy department. But beyond the cross-dimensional car chases and panda slaughters, beyond the surface level madness it throws at you, there’s something underneath. I don’t know if I can explain what it is, but it’s there.

Casanova Quinn, former alternate universe double agent (long story), now finds himself saddled with the task of erasing every possible alternate version of his arch-enemy, Newman Xeno to try and prevent his crimes in the future. But without knowing Xeno’s true identity, Quinn is forced to basically destroy entire possible time-lines. That is until hefinds out Xeno’s identity, and is then cursed with the somehow even more grim fate of murdering the same man over and over again.

The story becomes all kinds of trippy, but when you get down into it, it’s a fascinating story with a character arc unlike most you’ve ever seen, as it has to take place in such insane story parameters. It’s not going to be for everyone, but the people it is for are going to find some incredibly unique characters and moments that will stay with them.

#7 – Comic Book Comics Evil Twin Comics
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Ryan Dunlavey

When I read Van Lente and Dunlavey’s previous series Action Philosophers, I was riveted, despite not knowing much of anything about philosophy as a subject. The pair’s distinct talents for using the medium of comics as an educational tool, laying out the history and basics of the major tent-poles of the subject in a form understandable to the lay-est of laymen, is impressive.

So when they next tackled the history of comic books themselves, a subject I am already highly invested in, it was a pretty easy sell. But again, they’re use of the comic book form applies fantastically here, as they explain everything from the legal woes of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, to the reasons behind the “grim and gritty” takeover of the late 80’s, to current issues of internet piracy.

Things that are normally the less interesting aspects of an educational topic, like long quotes or diagrams suddenly come to life when Dunlavey melds them into the artwork, in many cases literally bringing the subjects to life to explain themselves. Again, I’m already heavily biased in being interested in the history being told here, but it’s done so well I have no doubt that anyone with a bit of curiosity can pick up this series and learn a ton of stuff they never knew they wanted to learn.

#6 – Wolverine and the X-men Marvel Comics
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Chris Bachalo

“Wolverine and the X-men” is the X-men book I’ve always been looking for, even when I didn’t know it. Back when the movies started, during Grant Morrison’s run, they toyed with the idea of turning Xavier’s into a more fully functioning school, with a whole body of teenaged students, as opposed to the usual dozen or so X-men just hanging around, not getting much of any “schooling”. This lasted a while, with New X-men taking on the concept of a team of students dealing more with their classmates and curriculum then with supervillains.

Unfortunately, the whole school concept was abandoned for years. I continually found it strange that with series like Harry Potter or Narutoseeing huge success with concepts entirely based around this “crazy sci-fi/fantasy school” concept, that the X-men had shied away from the formula.

Luckily, Jason Aaron comes out of nowhere with Wolverine and the X-men. Logan, the least likely of anyone, reopens the school, and the results are amazing. The new Jean Grey School for Higher Learning is completely nuts. Beast programed the Danger Room to work anywhere in the building. There’s floating classrooms. It’s built on a living patch of dirt. It’s infested with inter-dimensional imps! The X-men’s school is finally on the level of Hogwarts when it comes to just being an excellent fantasy for kids. You WANT to go to school there, despite the fact it might kill you.

The ramshackle cast of X-men that staff and attends the school work great. A collection of classics, fan favorites and newbies that all gel together and create a great dynamic. Plus, being drawn by Chris Bachalo makes pretty much everything better. Like I said with Batgirl, the biggest strength here is simply that it’s a FUN comic book. The most fun I’ve had with merry mutants in…. forever, maybe.

#5 – Ultimate Spider-man Marvel Comics
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Sara Pichelli, Mark Bagley

Brian Michael Bendis had been writing his updated, modern take on Spider-man for about a decade. The main draw of Ultimate Spider-man was the sense that, not having to adhere to continuity or tradition, anything could happen. So, just when you think you have it figured out, they say, “Hey, what if we just KILL PETER PARKER?”

If that seems like it’d never work, you wouldn’t be the only one that thought so. Even being a separate entity from the “main” Spider-man, Ultimate Peter was still pretty entrenched in readers minds. He’s Spider-man, and it’s not the sort of character you normally imagine being shuffled off and having their mask picked up by someone else. It just didn’t make sense.

But then… then he dies. Just like they said. The story of his death, drawn by original series artist Mark Bagley, was gut-wrenching. I got teary eyed a couple times. They gave him a death worthy of the name Peter Parker, that was for sure. So they pulled off that part. But still, how do you replace Peter Parker?

Well, that’s where Miles Morales comes in. A completely new character, we spend the first few issues learning about this kid (younger than Peter even, only 13!) and his motivations. First off, the surprisingly simple conceit behind his powers works just fine, and I was actually pretty pumped to see that he has some different powers than Peter did, which I hadn’t thought about beforehand. He’s likable, he’s relatable, he’s a Peter Parker-esque protagonist in his way. But there’s a moment. When he’s dealing with these powers, and he’s comes across a building on fire. And he runs toward it. He runs in and saves a girl without thinking about it. And then you know, he’s got it.

Miles isn’t Peter. His drive, his influences, his family, are all structured differently. He’s got his own thing going. But he’s got that spark. He’s got that I-don’t know what. He’s not Peter, but he is Spider-man. I never would have thought I could be convinced of that, but here we are.

#4 – Criminal: The Last of the Innocent Icon Comics
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips

The surface level pitch for the newest story from the library of “Criminal” limited series,“The Last of the Innocent”, is enough to hook a good most people. But that’s the easy sell. Let me try and work around it.

“The Last of the Innocent” is the story ofRiley Richards, a man who by all rights should be over the moon happy, having achieved everything he ever wanted. A gorgeous wife, a high-paying job, and the big city life he always dreamed of as a kid in his tiny hometown of Brookview. But after the death of his father, a trip back home starts to make him see all the cracks in his perfect world. He then starts down a violent road of crime and murder in hopes of getting back to the life he gave up.

It’s as great a crime thriller as any Brubaker and Phillips have given us before, but the added layers of the glossy-eyed flashbacks to Riley’s childhood, as his memories creep into his psyche, clouding his judgment and leading him down his dark path. It’s a chilling story of the dangers of nostalgia.

Still not sold? Alright, fine, here’s the easy pitch. It’s basically a story about a grown-up Archie going nuts and murdering his cheating wife Veronica? Are you morbidly curious enough now? Good.

#3 – Locke and Key IDW
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez

I’ve been feverishly devouring the four released collections of Locke and Key over the last year. It’s not the sort of thing that I would usually consider to be in my wheelhouse, but then, I’m not even sure what sort of wheelhouse it belongs in anyway.

Equal parts family drama, horror, and magical fantasy, L&K stands pretty alone in it’s own niche. The story of the Locke family who, after the brutal murder of their father, go back to Maine to live in his childhood home, nicknamed “Keyhouse”. Once there, they begin to discover a series of magic keys, each one having a different fantastical powers, like turning you into a ghost, or activating a mind controlling music box. Anything at all really.

The most interesting thing about L&K for me is how wildly it can swing back and forth in tone. The characters are all dealing with some seriously dark and violent trauma, but the series can still weave it’s whimsical aspects in and out of that story, somehow never feeling out of place. It’s a tightrope act that’s amazing to watch.

This year’s Volume 4, “Keys to the Kingdom” is an especially emotional roller coaster. It starts off with what equates to montage over a number of different keys and adventures, luring readers into a certain status quo after the last few volumes. We think we know what to expect now. Then some stuff happens. I’m not gonna get specific with spoilers here, but suffice to say they know just when to stick the knife in, and turn your expectations upside down. Well played sirs.

#2 – Daredevil Marvel Comics
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin

This is sort of the final point to the whole “fun, lighthearted superhero comics” theme. Being steeped in pretty bleak overtones since, well, Frank Millar back in the 80’s, returningDaredevil to his more swashbuckling adventure roots was a long time coming.

But writer Mark Waid’s biggest success here isn’t just spearheading the tonal shift, it’s the fact he really earns it. Daredevil has gone through some really dark stuff the past decade, and just having him flip on a dime to happy-go-lucky Matt would be a pit of a cheat. And while that’s exactly what happens, it’s the reaction of Matt’s partner Foggy Nelson that saves the whole thing.

He knows that Matt’s new, upbeat attitude on life is really just a mask. Matt is in denial, and that knowledge gives the whole series a real interesting undertone. It’s still a fun comic, but it’s not just flippant of the series history.

While I don’t seem to talk about art in these things much for some reason (most of these entries have amazing art, by the way), it really requires mention here. Tag-teaming artists Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin both blows the doors off this book. They have a similar vibe, but with their own distinct styles of panel layouts and really cool depictions of DD’s radar sense. While I was looking forward to seeing Martin on the book after his amazing work with Batgirl and Spider-man, and he absolutely kills, I was surprised to find myself really blown away by Rivera. I guess just not expecting anything caught me off guard, because Rivera ups his game astonishingly, and goes toe to toe with Martin at every turn.

Every other comic is probably mad at this one for taking twoamazing artists and not sharing.

#1 – Detective Comics DC Comics
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Jock, Francesco Francavilla

Not only is there two (TWO) Bat-family books on my list this year, one of them is number one!? I thought I didn’t even like Batmanthat much! I’m having an identity crisis here.

Of DC’s “New 52″, one of the standouts to me was “Batman”, written by Scott Snyder. A big win with a self-professed Batman hater. I knew that Snyder had also written Detective Comics for most of the year pre-relaunch, and I’d heard great things about that story. So I went and checked that out. And… well…

It’s maybe my favorite Batman story of all time. And Batman kind of isn’t in it. Taking place when Dick Grayson was operating as Batman, this is probably going to be the defining story of his short tenure as the bat. A series of cases that give Dick a crash-course in Gotham City, and the true horrors it houses. There’s mystery, action, intrigue, and everything you’d want from a Batman story.

But what really pushes it over the top is the secondary story, starring Commissioner Gordon that runs though the run. Dark secrets from Gordon’s past are suddenly drug up from the sewer, threatening to destroy not only him, but Batman and Barbara Gordon as well. In a series of books where the Joker is trotted out every two months to diminishing returns, this story creates a new foe who may be the most terrifying villian in Batman’s recent history. It’s rare that I find of comic book truly thrilling, but reading this book honestly kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through.

And finally, it’s worth noting this is the only book not jelous of Daredevil, as it has it’s own all-star art team of Jock and Francesco Francavilla tackling the Batman and Gordon stories, respectively. It’s a wealth of art riches that most books can only dream of.

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