BY AARON BLOCK
The Fourth Annual Aaron Block Awards, Celebrating Excellence in the Comics I Read This Year, Presented By Aaron Block
“Best Comic I Did Not Expect To Like” – Hawkeye #1-3, written by Matt Fraction, drawn by David Aja, colored by Matt Hollingsworth.
When Hawkeye was announced, I wrote it off as an attempt to cash in on the character’s appearance in The Avengers. On top of that, I haven’t been very enthusiastic about Matt Fraction’s writing in the past. I planned to pick up the first issue for David Aja’s art, but didn’t expect to stick around. Then the first issue turned out to have a unique look and voice, and a narrative concept unlike most anything else I was reading.
Fraction and Aja make the most of the done-in-one approach. Particularly Aja, who often breaks pages into micro panels without overwhelming the reader, or slowing the pace of the story. A typical mainstream comic book offers maybe two or three stories a year, broken up into 5 and six parts. And while that approach can be rewarding, it’s refreshing to see a creative team making the most of a single issue. It’s also possibly an ideal approach for the burgeoning digital market – new readers intrigued by a preview on the Marvel Comixology app might be more satisfied to pay for a story that begins and ends in 20 pages. Or they might not, in which case the sharp storytelling, sardonic tone, and purple palette courtesy of colorist Matt Hollingsworth will bring them back for the next issue.
“Best Comic I Expected to Like, But Not Nearly This Much” – Saga #1-6, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples.
If Hawkeye was a sleeper, Saga was the odds on favorite. There was such hype around the book (particularly around the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics) that Image’s announcement was the biggest news out of the 2011 San Diego Comic Con. No comic reader I knew wasn’t at least curious about the series, and most eagerly anticipated the first issue.
With that kind of build-up Saga #1 was almost guaranteed to be disappointing, so it was a little astounding when the first issue was even better than I’d anticipated. Each issue introduces at least two or three new wrinkles in the world, but they’re such simple, digestible concepts that they only enrich the reading. Rocketship forests, robot royals with televisions for heads, and a brothel planet teeming with eros of all kinds – it’s all just a little familiar, but strange enough that the comic still feels like the sci-fi adventure Image promoted. Fiona Staples’s design and illustration work are equally crucial in folding those odd details into the story and keeping the reader’s attention away from the minutiae of how a rocketship tree would work and on the characters. It’s also worth nothing that Saga has one of the best letter columns in all of comics.
“Best High Concept Comic That Actually Pays Off” – The Manhattan Projects #1-6, written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Nick Pittara, colored by Chris Peter and Jordie Bellair.
Along with Saga, Prophet, and a few other titles, The Manhattan Projects has become one of Image Comics’ flagship titles, representing the creative push that’s seen the publisher’s profile rise significantly over the past year. Image has always been a creator’s company, but now more than ever before it seems to define itself by giving writers and artists the space and support necessary to make the kinds of comics that DC and Marvel typically eschew. That’s as true of first-time creators as it is of a high-profile writer like Jonathan Hickman, who balances his for-hire work at Marvel with the mad uber-scientist fun of The Manhattan Projects.
But that fun, as I’ve noted in a previous Spotlight review, comes with a very dark vision of human potential. While famed nuclear-era scientists like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman take the spotlight, lurking in the corner is a sense that all of this madness will have dire consequences for the entire world. It reads like Dr. Strangelove but less realistic.
The Manhattan Projects also features some of the best coloring in comics, particularly flashback sequences that are rendered entirely in alternating reds and blues. All year I’ve been trying to crack the code, only to have Jonathan Hickman himself tell me at MorrisonCon that it doesn’t really mean anything outside of making the book look and feel interesting. It certainly achieves that, as does Nick Pittara’s art. But there’s something else going on in the color switching, particularly as it relates to good and evil. That neither Hickman nor the book itself readily give up the answer makes it all the more fun to read.
“Most Disturbing Comic That Looks Like It Should Be All-Ages Fun” – Mind MGMT #1-6, by Matt Kindt.
Mind MGMT looks like something you might find in a children’s magazine, like Highlights for Kids. The art appears to be done in watercolor, which gives every scene a dreamlike, surreal quality. It could all be innocent fun, except for the mind control plot, abductions, murders, pitiless enforcers, and the orgy of violence as an entire town destroys itself.
There’s even a puzzle quality to the storytelling, as if you could read all six issues forwards, backwards, upside-down, and never get the same story. Kindt’s story is all the more disturbing, and the sudden twists more surprising, for these kid-friendly tactics. Even the newsprint the comic is printed on recalls the comics of my youth, to say nothing of the totally x-treme fake ads on the back covers which, when assembled, reveal a secret message and a code for readers to plug into a website for additional content. It’s as if Kindt is looking to recapture the giddiness and fun of being a young reader, but with devastating, uncomfortable content. I’ve been genuinely surprised by every issue of Mind MGMT, and that’s not something I can say about many comics I’ve read this year.
“Best Comic I Could’ve Told You Would Be On This List Even Before the First Issue Was Published” – Batman, Inc. #1-4, plus #0 written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chris Burnham.
To be fair, Batman, Inc. #1isn’t really the first issue of the series, nor is it the first time Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham have worked together on the title. DC published eight issues of the series prior to last year’s relaunch, but temporarily canceled it to give the New 52 titles time to get established. And since the industry has turned increasingly towards the marketability of #1 issues, DC renumbered it, but kept the creative team and the story consistent. Kind of a complicated history for DC’s best book.
It gets even more complicated if you consider that the second volume of Batman, Inc. is only the latest (and final) leg of Morrison’s six-year Bat-epic. And while Morrison’s previous collaborators are no slouches (Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, and Frazer Irving among them) Burnham has proven to be the ideal artist for the story. His Batman is a fluid mass, while Damian is appropriately lithe and frequently airborne. He manages the large cast of characters, which includes a dozen or so Batman, Inc. operatives and dozens of assassins, by differentiating each one, from facial acting to posture. I’m a die-hard Morrison fan, but I look forward to Batman, Inc. each month as much for the writing as for Burnham’s art. And when the series concludes, I’m on board for his next project, whatever it may be.
Wonder Woman #5-12, plus #0, written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins, which also gets special notice for “Most Exciting Single Page.”
Action Comics #9, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Gene Ha
The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #1-6, written by David Hine, drawn by Shaky Kane