BY AARON BLOCK
[This is the last entry in our 2010 Best Books Series. Find all the other entries here. We’ve also compiled all our best books in one easy-to-browse page; find it by clicking the stamp, at left or anywhere else you see it on the site.]
The Second Annual Aaron Block Awards, Celebrating Excellence In the Comics I Read This Year, Presented By Aaron Block
“Most Awkward Purchase” Award – Black Kiss, written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin
My local comic book store, Comicopia in Boston, displays the “adult” themed books on the top shelf of the new releases rack, usually with plastic bags and carefully placed stickers to hide the naughty bits from sensitive eyes. I didn’t even think to look there when the newest hardcover collection of Howard Chaykin’s poison-pen letter to Regan’s America, Black Kiss, though I was eager to pick it up. I’d heard it was controversial, but didn’t think it would be stocked alongside more overtly pornographic comics. When I finally did find it, I realized that it wasn’t the explicit sex that kept it on the adult shelf, but the pitch-black worldview Chaykin presents.
For all the horrible things that happen within its pages, Black Kiss is remarkably frothy. You can almost hear writer/artist Chaykin laughing to himself as he detailed each panel, knowing the furor and outrage it would engender. That anarchic spirit seethes in every element of the book, from the knotted, hard-boiled plot to the cast of morally bankrupt Los Angeles archetypes, and even Chaykin’s rough, sketchy but heavily detailed style. The book is so dense with death and perversion in the first issue alone that any titillation or lurid appeal is quickly numbed, replaced with a morbid fascination with how deep in the gutter Chaykin is willing to tread.
Reading Black Kiss is fun, even though it shouldn’t be. Chaykin is rumored to be working on a sequel, but I wonder if an update could be as powerful as the original, given how much of this book shock-matter seems to be front and center in mainstream culture?
“Hey Wasn’t This Book a ‘Best Of’ Last Year?” Award – Batman & Robin #7-16, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by various; Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by various
Batman and Robin may have launched in 2009, but the bulk of the story took place in 2010, and it was in three 2010 story arcs (drawn by Cameron Stewart, Andy Clarke, and Frazer Irving, respectively) that Morrison began weaving the new Batman and Robin’s adventures in with the circumstances surrounding Bruce Wayne’s journey from the dawn of civilization to the end of history, finally landing in the present where he belongs. That story began in earnest in May with the first issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne. And while each series could be read individually with few gaps in comprehension, reading them together offered a rare treat—a modern superhero story that makes narrative use of inter-book continuity. Not that Morrison ever resorted to heavy-handed exposition to make those links easy to find, or process; instead, Morrison trusts the reader to look for details, raise questions, and try to solve the mystery along with the characters.
The art is predictably gorgeous. Cameron Stewart’s glossy, animated feel suits Batman and Robin’s British adventure, while Frazer Irving makes the most of the hallucinatory, nightmarish final act with odd angles, odd coloring, and soft line-work. Only Georges Jeanty’s issue of Return hits a sour note, one issue out of fifteen, the rest of which are of consistently high caliber.
I assume the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries will be collected separately from the Batman and Robin collections, but they’re both worth picking up and reading concurrently.
“Best Unfinished Series” Award – Joe the Barbarian #1-7, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Sean Murphy
To say that delays have affected Joe the Barbarian’s momentum is an understatement—the first issue of the eight-issue series appeared in January, and we’re still waiting for the eighth issue. Seven issues in eleven months isn’t the worst rate in comics (I waited longer between issues of Ultimates and All-Star superman) but lateness is particularly detrimental to a story that operates on two separate time scales, and relies pretty heavily on cliffhanger endings.
But if a little extra time is what artist Sean Murphy needs to produce art this detailed and evocative, then it’s worth it. Inking and penciling, Murphy acquits himself in both of this story’s worlds: the “real” world of diabetic teenager Joe, and the “fantasy” world of his hypoglycemic hallucinations where most of the books action occurs. The seven-foot-tall ninja rat creatures, flying demonic knights, and steampunk-esque mechanics of Playtown (which is also populated by pastiches of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and other toys scattered around Joe’s bedroom) are just as precisely rendered as the stairs and hallways of Joe’s house, and the action is clear and well-choreographed.
Issue 8 promises Joe’s final confrontation with King Death, and the conclusion of his quest to fight through his hallucinations and get a soda from the kitchen to reset his blood sugar, and I can’t shake the feeling that the ending isn’t going to be a happy one. Morrison is optimistic and hopeful at his core, and doesn’t dwell in misery without also developing the up-shot, so I shouldn’t worry. But who knows? The conclusion might doom the entire series and I’ll be forced to retract this “best of” entry (unlikely)—until then, I’m happy to celebrate an unabashedly kid-friendly comic in these days of gloom and angst.
“Weird Nostalgia Trip” Award – The Bulletproof Coffin 1-5, written by David Hine, illustrated by Shaky Kane
The Bulletproof Coffin is the history of comics projected through a grimy lens. It’s the kind of story that has a deep regard for its own fabricated past, and seems intent on fusing that past with the reader’s present. Kane’s pencils are a rougher, scratchier version of Jack Kirby’s style, and each issue is in part a “replica” of the fictional Golden Nugget comics that appear in the story, turning the product itself into some kind of bridge between realities. It’s as if the creators are trying to imagine what modern comics might look like if they drew influence and inspiration from these stories and ideas.
Not that those stories are entirely pleasant—the superheroes who appears first in the comics the protagonist reads, and then cross over into real life, resemble characters published by Marvel or DC in the ’60s, but they’re bleaker and angrier. That anger seems to come from Hine and Kane’s own frustration with the industry—both veteran creators, Hine has moved into mostly for-hire work at the Big Two (currently writing DC’s The Spirit, one of my favorite books) and Kane has mostly withdrawn from comics. But in this book they’ve cast themselves as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby analogues, the genius partnership that cast a long shadow over an entire industry.
I should mention that Bulletproof Coffin, like Joe the Barbarian, has yet to conclude, but with one issue left there’s not much Hine and Kane could do to taint its status as one of the most playful mainstream comics in the past few years.
(You can read the first issue of Bulletproof Coffin online, for free, here.)
“Undiluted Superhero Action” Award – Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine #1-3, written by Jason Aaron, illustrated by Adam Kubert
Writer Jason Aaron is probably best known for his Vertigo series Scalped, a very serious, often grim crime book, which makes it all the more surprising that this book is so joyous and willing to explore the boundaries of what superhero comics can do. Telling a story that’s part of the established Marvel universe but not bound to any current continuity, Aaron is free to dip into the sci-fi well, using time travel and alternate realities as tools to explore Spider-Man and Wolverine individually and as complimentary forces who also happen to be two of the medium’s most popular characters.
Adam Kubert is an inspired choice to illustrate this series—he’s capable of big, bombastic action sequences (see the gatefold spread of Wolverine facing down a planet-sized Doctor Doom in issue three) but also aces the acting, letting each character’s posture and expression reflect the forces of life and death that they’ve come to represent.
I’m grateful for any comic that doesn’t depend on my having internalized years and years of publication history, even when I do have the required knowledge to put the plot together. And while Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine does draw on Marvel history for some of its most poignant moments and funniest sight-gags, this is a comic designed for new readers, eager to play with their expectations without ever disappointing them.