BY AARON BLOCK
This is the seventh and final installment in our Best Books of 2009 series. Read the other six here.
AKA, The Aaron Block Awards For My Favorite Comics of 2009, Presented By Aaron Block
Rather than pretend to claim any kind of comprehensive look at the best comics of the past year, I thought I’d give out special awards to the books that I most enjoyed. There are likely better books than what I’ve included here (Asterios Polyp anyone?) but these are the five closest to my heart.
The critics who assailed DC for playing up the modern Batwoman’s sexuality, or who argued that a reviving her as a lesbian was mere tokenism, were silenced when writer Greg Rucka gave her the spotlight in Detective Comics 854. No mere token or object of fanboy fantasy, Batwoman is a strong, nuanced lead character, and Detective contains easily the most satisfying character work in mainstream comics. Though much of the story-so-far is familiar (particularly in the Bat-world: struggles with dual identity, loss of family members, bittersweet victories), Rucka manages to pull fresh ideas from those conventions, and all without irony or cynicism.
Artist J.H. Williams III deserves much of the credit for the book’s unique feel. More than a gifted storyteller, Williams continues to reinvent the architecture of mainstream comics, employing unconventional layouts that often stretch across two pages, but still reveal the scene gradually. And he continues to experiment with style, using a stable, Alex Toth-like line for flashback scenes and switching to an ethereal painterly style for the present. Credit is also due to colorist Dave Stewart, who’s vibrant reds stand out in nearly ever panel, particularly in Batwoman’s close-ups; her red hair and lips, contrasted with the otherworldly white of her skin and dark black costume suggest all of the emotional complexity of Rucka’s script.
Since joining the Bat-books in 2006, Morrison has been steadily developing a thesis that argues for the continued appreciation and relevance of Batman’s entire published history, rather than just the few “in continuity” years that publisher and fanbase are willing to acknowledge. “Circus of Strange”, Morrison and Quitely’s introductory arc, juxtaposes the bright colors and humor of the 60s “Batman” television show with the grim amusement park setting of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” From the brilliant incorporation of sound effects (largely, and sadly, absent in most contemporary comics) directly into the action rather than slapped on top like a sticker, to the terrifying hordes of physically and mentally-disfigured “dolls” created by Professor Pyg, the whole arc is unsettling in its juxtaposition of both worlds. Even Alex Sinclair’s colors contribute to the book’s sickly sweet feel.
The first three issues of Batman and Robin might not be the quintessential Morrision/Quitely collaboration, but I’d say it’s probably the most overt with what it intends to accomplish through the form; action sequences are laid out to highlight the character’s movement through space (and through the page) rather than musculature or viscera, and the story beats strike a precise balance between psychological terror and introspective drama. Morrison’s follow-up arc, with artist Phillip Tan, held less rewards, but nevertheless operated at a higher level than most superhero books. Upcoming collaborations with Cameron Stewart and Frazier Irving, however, and rumblings of Quitely’s return, should return Batman and Robin to its inventive glory.
Morrison’s work is often tagged as “deliberately confusing,” couched as a sort of art-school prank abetted by fans and critics who hold the writer in high regard. The Slaves of Mickey Eye, the second volume of his and Stewart’s divisive series, is the perfect response to such lazy, uninspired criticism, as the story is fairly straightforward: Seaguy, who seems on the verge of uncovering the mysteries behind Mickey Eye’s inexplicable hold on society, is bullied so deep into self-doubt he retreats into the prefabricated identity of a matador and must think his way back to reality before the villain, Sea Dog, marries She-Beard, Seaguy’s barbarian love interest.
As in the first volume, The Slaves of Mickey Eye is flush with the sense that much is not right in a seemingly perfect world. Stewart’s art, with it’s bold, almost cartoonish, yet remarkably detailed backgrounds and characters create just such a world, while also carrying the emotional weight of Seaguy’s trial of self-awareness. The book’s complexity comes not from the plot, then, but from the layering of sometimes disturbing but surprisingly sweet coming-of-age story over the screwball super-heroics. True, Morrison isn’t holding anyone’s hand; close reading and a little thought are needed to get at Seaguy’s greater resonance, but the same is (or should be) true of any comics worth reading.
With any luck, Irredeemable will finally skewer Mark Waid’s inexplicable reputation as a Silver Age revivalist. No paean to “simpler times,” the on-going series from Boom! Studios actually engages in a bit of icon baiting, positing a world where the Plutonian (a Superman analogue, complete with mild-mannered secret identity and fabulous powers) goes rogue, begins hunting and killing his former friends, destroys the city he used to protect, and in general runs amok. Some of the surviving heroes have banded together to stop the Plutonian, but how do you hide from a man who can hear and see you from thousands of miles away?
Waid’s trademark sarcasm is all over Irredeemable, but this book feels more personal than much of his work in the past five years. While it might be too easy to say Waid is externalizing self-doubts and coping with his somewhat confrontational public persona through the Plutonian’s actions, I do think he is questioning the roles and responsibilities of those we trust with our safety in an anonymous comment/insta-critic society. Can “good” really exist in a world where everyone’s stability seems so tenuous, and even the most mild-mannered have the power to upend that stability? And if that line is so thin, what do we now make of our heroes? Irredeemable is not even a year into it’s run and is still only beginning to grapple with such questions, but the result so far is a dark, compelling story that doesn’t point to any easy or obvious conclusions.
Yes, Young Liars began in 2008, but it was cancelled in 2009 and deserves mention in this section. How to write a capsule review for such a book, which defies encapsulation? Describing the plot would be pointless, since it doesn’t even have a beginning or ending; the “deeper significance” is only as deep or significant as any particular reader wishes to make it. What’s left? Maybe the characters? Danny Noonan, a loser from central Texas who may or may not also be Danny Duoshade, rock legend; Sadie Browning, heiress of the Brown Bag retail fortune and Danny’s dream girl, who has turned into an uninhibited ass-kicker thanks to a bullet lodged in her brain; Donnie, the likeable cross-dressing heroin addict; Big C, the consummate groupie; Annie X, a former model who might also be a spy for the invading Martian spider forces that are attempting to conquer Earth through the Brown Bag franchise. Also, Sadie might be a rebellious Martian Spider Princess, and Danny might be the worst spider of them all. Maybe. If all of the Spiders From Mars stuff has you worried, don’t worry; in the end the book is really just about rock and roll. Maybe. Lapham plays fast and loose with multiple realities, never stopping to give an answer without also questioning everything that’s come before. Young Liars was the one book I could trust to surprise me every month. And now it’s gone.