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BY AARON BLOCK

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions.]

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The Third Annual Aaron Block Awards, Celebrating Excellence in the Comics I Read This Year, presented by Aaron Block

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“Best Story Mostly Published In 2011” Award – Detective Comics #871-881, written by Scott Snyder, drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla

When Scott Snyder began his eleven issue run on Detective Comics towards the end of 2010 Grant Morrison was already waist deep in a multi-year Batman story in which he’d introduced Bruce Wayne’s maniac son, reinvented the Joker, and finally killed Wayne and introduced Dick Grayson, the first Robin, as his replacement. Even Morrison’s detractors had to admit he was steering DC’s Bat-books, and any title that wasn’t directly involved in his story felt like an also-ran. But from the first issue Snyder made a compelling case for Batman stories firmly set in, but stylistically and thematically distinct from, Morrison’s status-quo. Snyder grounded the character, replacing fantastic, supernatural villains with a more disturbingly ordinary evil – interwoven in Batman’s investigations is the story of Commissioner Gordon’s estranged son, James. Jr., who may or may not have committed some horrible acts as a child and has returned to Gotham with uncertain motives.

Tension and anxiety drive the story as much, if not more, than superhero action, and it all builds to a devastating climax. That same tension is due in no small part to the efforts of Snyder’s artists, Jock and Francesco Francavilla, each of whom develops one of the two storylines – Jock on the Batman thread, Francavilla on the Gordon thread – rather than alternating issues. Their styles are radically different, but both capture the dread and uncertainty that creeps into every scene.

Snyder rode the success of his work on Detective to become one of DC’s top writers, playing a key role in the recent relaunch. In fact, Snyder’s story has, for the moment, supplanted Morrison’s as the new direction for the Bat-titles in the relaunched DCU – no small feat.

“Most Re-read Issue” Award – Secret Avengers #16, written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Jamie Mckelvie

So far every issue of Ellis’s abbreviated run on Secret Avengers has been a model of brisk, economic storytelling, but nothing since this first issue has quite matched its energy and sense of spectacle. That’s at least partly due to expectations – I had no idea what Ellis was up to with this run, an advantage subsequent issues can’t claim – but it takes capable creators to capitalize on that lack of expectation and deliver a compelling story.

Ellis is in minimalist mode here, delivering a skeletal plot that finds Captain America leading his covert/espionage team into an underground city to foil a terrorist plot that would wipe Cincinnati off the map. It’s not hard to follow, but it moves at a fast clip and the characters are quiet (except for the Beast, the teams’ resident science geek), so it feels unlike anything else on the shelves, mainstream superhero or otherwise. I read it three times in succession – first for the story and plot, second just to orient myself in the stripped down narrative approach, and third to luxuriate in the world Ellis and Mckelvie created. Mckelvie in particular deserves perhaps the most praise in this regard, as it’s his light, clean line work that renders the gray, familiar yet alien underground city with such clarity, while still choreographic dynamic action sequences. The two-page spread of Moon Knight gliding over the seemingly empty city captures both of these storytelling needs at the same time, suggesting the grace and fluidity of the character’s flight, and juxtaposing it with the terrifying sameness of the buildings and streets below.

Our heroes save the day, naturally, but because this is a Warren Ellis comic they are at least aware of the compromises they made for safety, and at least one character seems to need some convincing that his actions can be reconciled with his morality. But Ellis gets all of that across in the span of two word balloons – there’s no time for navel gazing in a book this compact.

“Best Mini-Series Featuring an Icon of my Childhood” – The Rocketeer Adventures #1-4, written and drawn by various creators

The quality of the talent who contributed to this anthology title – including Mark Waid, Darwyn Cooke, Tommy Lee Edwards, Michael Kaluta, Kurt Busiek, and many others – made it a must-read, even if it wasn’t about one of my favorite characters. But more than just an excuse to see top-flight creators at work, this series is a love letter to the late Dave Stevens, who created the Rocketeer – the affection is evident in the flexibility and nuance of the art, and the clever storytelling that keeps four issues of short, pulpy adventure stories featuring the same characters from becoming repetitive. Several creators – Busiek and Cooke in particular – centered their stories not on Cliff’s exploits, but on his girlfriend Betty, rewriting the perennial “pretty hostage” trope of the Disney film to reveal the clever, capable character Stevens intended.

Four issues is a satisfying length, but I’d happily read new Rocketeer stories every month. Hopefully IDW will continue working with the Stevens estate to produce more material that meets the high standards set by this collection.

“Most Surprising About-Face” – Catwoman #1-3, written by Judd Winnick and drawn by Guillem March

To be honest, I laughed when I finished the first issue of this series. The now infamous scene of Catwoman and Batman consummating their relationship in-panel was so absurd that I could only marvel at writer Judd Winick’s gall – to take all the innuendo and pent-up energy of 70-plus years of Batman and Catwoman stories and up the ante read as a desperate miscalculation, sure to end poorly for creators and publisher alike. Sure enough, the controversy machine instantly hummed to life, and soon it felt like every comic fan, even those who hadn’t read the issue in question, were choosing sides in a debate about sexism and gender iniquity. Far from a prude, I still found myself in favor of restraint – a little lurid fun is one thing, but the hypersexuality of this issue seemed to emphasize all the most embarrassing failings of mainstream superhero comics.

And yet, I bought the second issue. Partly out of morbid curiosity about exactly how Winnick would follow-up his first act, but largely because I was drawn into the story, super-sex aside, and because the book is gorgeous. Guillem March’s art tends a bit towards the “Good Girl” cheesecake style of artists like Adam Hughes and Art Adams, but with dynamic layouts and action in place of posing, and a strong sense of texture that locates the art in a specific material reality. And Winnick, no stranger to twisted crime stories, knows how to build and release narrative tension – Catwoman’s predilection for violence is just as often used to make the reader uncomfortable as it is to satisfy the “villain brought to justice” narrative arc.

As of issue three, this is one of the titles I most anticipate every month. The indelible specter of Bat-coitus isn’t enough to mar what’s turning out to be a compelling, exquisitely rendered comic.

“Tour de Force” Award – Daredevil #1-6, written by Mark Waid, drawn by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin

Though this is a new series featuring a character that’s been around for nearly 50 years, it isn’t a relaunch or a reinvention or a re-anything – it’s simply a veteran writer bringing exciting, dynamic concepts to a troubled, but beloved, property and knowing when to step back and let his artists discover new possibilities in the medium. Without ignoring the past, Waid has managed to free Daredevil from needlessly complicated and dour storylines, trading the excess pathos in for a bit of fun. It helps that his artists are stylists who reach back to Steve Ditko and Gene Colan for inspiration – both Rivera and Martin employ clean, thin lines and just enough detailing that the figures and backgrounds feel real without cluttering the page. And they’re equally fond of complex layouts that push the story forward, first, but double as feats of uncanny technical prowess. Daredevil is maybe the best argument that mature comics don’t have to be angsty and hyperviolent.

Honorable Mentions:

Xombi #1-6, written by John Rozum, drawn by Frazer Irving

Batman, Incorporated #1-8, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by various

The Red Wing #1-4, written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Nick Pitarra

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1-10, written by Nick Spencer, drawn by CAFU with guest spots by about a dozen legendary artists

The Homeland Directive, written by Robert Vendetti, drawn by Mike Huddleston

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