"Comics Worth Reading"
I spend a lot of time on here writing articles trashing the hell out of comics that are so hilariously bad that they totally deserve to be trashed. Reading your comments however, I sometimes wonder if I'm not scaring some of you away from comic books altogether. Like any entertainment medium, it's about 90% crap to 10% quality stuff--the trick is simply to sift through the crap and find the good stuff. And while our still relatively new Weeklies section allows us to review plenty of comics good and bad, I'm not sure that's enough to prove that there are plenty of damned good comic books out there that are absolutely worth your time and trouble to check out.
So I thought for a change of pace this time around, I would let you guys know about some fantastic comics that are highly worth looking into. If you're interested in the medium, these would be good places to start. Don't worry, I won't lead you astray. Promise. And I'll save you the bother of having to waste your time and money on the crap. I follow about a million books a month, good and bad, so I have a pretty good eye on the industry as a whole.
This month's column will probably be more "informative" than "funny", but don't worry, I'll be back to my dick and fart jokes next month! My one rule here is that the book has to be current--meaning that you could walk into a comic book store, pick the latest issue up off the shelf, and follow it monthly from there on out if you so choose (sorry fans of Grant Morrison's Batman, but his run is over for the time being and I have no idea if the book is going to be good or suck from this point, so I can't recommend it). You can keep your eye on the Weeklies for books that are over and done with, and if there's something you'd like to see one of us review, feel free to recommend it! And in fact, I stand so strongly by these books as quality picks that if you pick one of them up and think it sucks (note: this is different from it just not being your "cup of tea"), I invite you to come to the I-Mockery booth at the Comic Con this year, tell me why you didn't like it, and punch me in the gut (note: I will be wearing a steel plate under my shirt).
So here are my picks in alphabetical order (note: I'm focusing on the big publishers here, because indie work tends to be more "self-contained" rather than ongoing and I feel that stuff is better reviewed in the Weeklies section):
Joss Whedon's mostly-outside-of-normal-continuity X-Men book was a tremendously fun romp that reminded me why I ever loved these characters in the first place. Initially (and thankfully) uninvolved in the normal Marvel universe (though later events from this book affected the other X-titles and became canon), Whedon showed that he truly understood what makes these characters so fun, staying away from the self-important emo crap that plagues much of the mutant corner of the Marvelverse these days. He also wisely chose to use Wolverine sparingly rather than have him show up six times in every panel. And so far Warren Ellis's run (picking up where Whedon left off) has proven to be an extremely interesting read as well, though his story is more of a sci-fi/mystery bent than Whedon's. This book's main focus has always been about the characters and their relationships, and so far has done a fine job of keeping the team roster lean and trim, lest it collapse under the bloated weight that has felled so many other cluttered X-titles. And Simone Bianchi's distinctive watercolor art is some of the finest work being done in the industry right now. It almost feels wrong seeing art that good in a comic, but I couldn't be happier that he's sticking around for the time being.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I know, I know, I'm losing half of you already! Wait! Don't go! Seriously, if you were a fan of the TV series at all, then Season Eight is a fantastic book well worth your time. If you don't care for Buffy, then you truly won't give a shit about this, so just move along down to the next entry (and this one won't count toward the gut punch). For those of us who are fans however, Season Eight is a pitch perfect continuation of the television series. All closely overseen by Joss Whedon, and with story arcs being contributed by many of the shows best writers, it's the next best thing to actually having the TV series continue (now if only he would do an ongoing Firefly book). And in some ways, given the limits of a cable television special effects budget, they're able to get away with a lot more here in terms of the "fantastic". You'll see things here they never could have pulled off on the show. And the art has stayed pretty consistent for the most part--you'll know which character you're looking at without other characters having to refer to them by name in every panel (a common problem with many other adaptations).
Since it happened almost two years ago now and was covered by major news networks, I don't think it's much of a spoiler at this point to say that Captain America is dead. Or at least, the Steve Rogers version of the character. The fact that this was consistently one of Marvel's best books for a year following his death and with no character filling the title role should say something about how good the writing is. Ed Brubaker broke one of the cardinal rules of Marvel Comics: Bucky Barnes (Cap's teenage sidekick from WWII) is dead and stays dead--but they way he brought him back and groomed him to be the title character was so calculated and well-handled that the fanbase (a whiny, nitpicky, pimply-faced lot) completely forgave him for it. Part superhero adventure, part spy thriller, and part nostalgic remembrance of World War II, I never thought I could have so much fun reading about a guy who uses a shield as a primary weapon (though Bucky has no qualms about guns), but this is hands down the second best book Marvel is publishing today.
Conan the Cimmerian
Originally just called Conan, they rebooted the title and changed the name after 50 issues. This book is a largely (as I understand) faithful retelling of Robert E. Howard's Conan tales, reorganized in chronological order, and with some of the gaps filled in with the writers' own material. Fans of the old Marvel Conan series and Howard purists apparently have their qualms with this retelling, but feeling no particularly strong attachment to either of those, I'm quite happy with this version of the story. And I really like that they're filling in the gaps between Howard's original short stories, showing how Conan got from point A at the end of one story to point B at the beginning of another. I could see being upset by it if they were shoe-horning crappy stories into the mix, but their additional material blends in seamlessly with the Howard adaptations, and I can scarcely tell the difference.
Ever since its reboot in the late 1990s, Daredevil has consistently been one of Marvel's best books. Typically seen as a second-string character, Matt Murdock's Daredevil is actually one of the more interesting characters in the Marvel Universe (don't let the shitty movie fool you). Aside from having a disability (which is rare for a superhero, although his power admittedly makes it a non-factor), he's also completely fucking insane and continues to make a horrible mess of his life with his foolish and impulsive behavior. Watching the train wreck that has become Matt Murdock's existence is never anything less than fascinating (seriously, if you enjoy schadenfreude, this is the book for you). Even when Bendis was writing the book (and I've made my thoughts on him clear enough), it was one of the best things he was writing, avoiding so many of his annoying tendencies. And since Ed Brubaker took over, it's been nothing short of phenomenal. Right off the bat he knocked it out of the park with his story arc about Murdock serving time in prison, and even when it seems that Brubaker is picking up the pieces of Matt's life and making everything okay, something comes along to blast everything to hell all over again. Daredevil is best when his life is a complete mess, and Brubaker seems to understand that quite well.
DMZ is Brian Wood's examination of what life would be like in a war-torn city, but instead of giving us an obvious story about, say, Baghdad, he gives us something we can really chew on--in this case, it's New York City that's in the middle of the conflict, and his decision to place the story closer to home resonates with an American audience far more than an Iraq story ever could. In the story, there is a Civil War in America as the Free States movement has decided to secede from the Union. Liberty News photographer intern Matty Roth is sent to Manhattan to help cover the story, but when the star journalist he's been sent with is killed right off the bat, he suddenly finds himself in a position to cover the events taking place in the demilitarized zone, and not being a reporter by trade, he fights to cut through the bullshit and give the real story. It's a really interesting examination of the complexities of a modern day civil war situation, while being a scathing critique of the news media as well.
Ex Machina is an amazingly even-handed political book about Mitchell Hundred, mayor of New York City, who came into office based on his fame during his time as superhero The Great Machine (the only superhero in this universe). Given the ability to speak with machines by an alien artifact, he saved the second WTC tower on September 11th, 2001. All of the superhero story is told in flashbacks, usually relating somehow to the political issues that Hundred is currently dealing with. Writer Brian K. Vaughan (now working on the TV series LOST) weaves real-world events (like the northeast blackout of 2003) into the story, but the causes or outcomes are often different, having been affected by his fictional characters. Somehow Vaughan manages to resist the urge to place his own personal politics into the book, as he presents almost every divisive issue in a very balanced way. Hundred himself is an Independent who leans left on social issues, but there are always advisor characters who give voices to all the opposing viewpoints, each of which are handled with tremendous respect and understanding. If you're into politics at all, you will certainly love this book.
Fables is the new Sandman of the Vertigo line, in the sense that it's a long-running book that takes characters from many different mythologies and mixes them all together into one shared universe. Most people would argue that this is the best book being published by Vertigo, and while I'm not 100% sure that it's my current favorite, I do find it hard to argue against that claim (even the spin-off series Jack of Fables is surprisingly fun). This is one of the most imaginative series being written today, and writer Bill Willingham mixes all these different characters together so well you'll wonder how it was they ever existed in separate universes in the first place. Initially, the book dealt with "Fables" of all different stripes having fled their Homelands due to an invasion by "the Adversary" and trying to stay hidden in a small community in modern-day Manhattan. But within the last year, Willingham surprised his readers by resolving the Adversary story (which seemed destined for the final climax), and taking the book in a truly bold new direction as of issue 75 (reportedly the halfway point of the story). Willingham continues to delight and defy expectations with his inventive and surprising story, and much like Sandman, I can imagine that lots of people who aren't exactly comic book geeks could really get into this story if they gave it a chance.
The longest running Vertigo book, Hellblazer continues to follow the adventures of the cynical mage John Constantine and shows no signs of slowing down, despite the fact that since the time it began around twenty years ago, it is the one and only mainstream comic (that I'm aware of) that progresses in real time. For every year of story, John Constantine ages approximately one year. Being in his mid-50s has not slowed him down in the slightest, however, and he still manages to find all kinds of trouble every month, often bringing it to those unfortunate enough to be around him. So many writers (all British save two) have taken a turn at Hellblazer over the years, but the quality of the book has remained remarkably consistent, particularly in the last decade or so. Like Daredevil, John Constantine is constantly shat on by the universe, except in his case it's usually the people around him who end up suffering for it. He's a fascinating, tragic character (and much cooler than the movie version) who's had to deal with all manner of imaginative, disturbing, occult menaces over the years. I don't know how they do it, but somehow the writers continue to add new layers to the shitcake that has become John's life, each layer somehow worse than the last.
House of Mystery
Another Vertigo book (I'm a Vertigo whore because it's the best comic imprint publishing today), House of Mystery is a compelling horror/mystery series that's loosely connected to the rest of the DC/Vertigo Universe (the House of Mystery is a longtime staple of DC Comics). A group of people have woken up in a house between realms that serves as a bar for inter-dimensional travelers. None of these people know why they are here, but they cannot leave, though the traveling patrons may come and go as they please. Drinks don't cost actual currency, but are paid for with stories, so the book is actually an anthology for all kinds of interesting little horror vignettes framed within the overall mystery of the characters who can't leave the house. I don't know where this thing is going (it's a mystery!) but I can tell you that I'm damn sure hooked on this thing so far.
The Immortal Iron Fist
Holy shit, this is absolutely the best book that Marvel is publishing. Hands down. If you had told me two years ago that I would eventually feel that way about an Iron Fist book, I would have laughed in your face. Back in the 1970s, Iron Fist was a ridiculous kung fu hero who ran around in his footie pajamas, and he partnered up with an angry, yellowclad Luke Cage, who felt that wearing a tiara was an acceptable fashion choice. Three decades and one well-conceived reboot later, writers Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker reintroduce Iron Fist in a book that heavily plays up the mystic, historical origins of the character. The fantasy elements they bring forth from the other dimensions give the book a feeling that anything could happen at any time. There was a great story arc featuring a martial arts tournament that introduced all kinds of interesting characters (with crazy names like Bride of Nine Spiders, Fat Cobra, Tiger's Beautiful Daughter, Dog Brother #1), and the best part of it was that when they performed their special moves the narrative boxes would label them awesome things such as "Thousand Fist Pummeling Nutsack Strike". I'm not familiar with the past written history of the character, so I don't know how much of this is totally new and how much is just reimagined--all I know is that they took a character I had absolutely zero interest in and within one year they made him the star of my favorite Marvel comic. That's quite a feat. And new series writer Duane Swierczynski who took the reigns last year has somehow managed to up the ante, sending Danny and his new friends (the other Immortal Weapons from the tournament) to hell, with seemingly no means of escape. This is the first book I go for when I bring home a new stack of books. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Justice Society of America
Justice Society of America is another book I had absolutely no interest in but decided to check out at the last reboot based on my past experiences with Geoff Johns' writing, and I have to say I'm glad I did. This is far superior to the Justice League book (which has just gone straight down the shitter), even though at first glance the characters are ridiculously cheesy. I always thought that the oldschool characters like the Alan Scott Green Lantern, the Jay Garrick Flash, Wildcat, and the like were a bunch of goofy goobers, but even I have to admit that after following their adventures for two years I'm actually really getting into it. More than anything, this book is all about the relationships between these characters and how they interact as a big gay family more than the "monster of the week" that some other team titles devolve into. Admittedly the year long "Gog" storyline was wearing really thin by the time it concluded, but fortunately they're past that now and will be launching into new unknown territory. I will caution you that this book may take some time to warm up to, as there are a tremendous shitload of characters and it's initially hard to keep track of them all. But give it a chance and you may find yourself starting to get into it. It's pretty rewarding if you give it the time to grown on you, and it's one of the most enjoyable superhero team books you could ask for.
This is without a doubt the most insanely brutal book being published by Vertigo today, and will quite handily fill the "gritty crime" void being left by the conclusion of 100 Bullets this month. Dashiell Bad Horse comes back home to the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation (for reasons left best unsaid due to spoilers) and ends up working for Chief Lincoln Red Crow's tribal police, though Red Crow himself is corrupt as the day is long. Bad Horse is one of the angriest protagonists you'll ever see, and the brutal violence in this book is at times extremely disturbing. Life on the reservation is harsh, and writer Jason Aaron doesn't hold back, showing us all kinds of horribly depressing things. If you like crime fiction, or even Westerns, this is definitely a book worthy of your time and attention.
There we go, thirteen books for you to look into. While there are certainly others worth reading, I think this is a pretty good list for now. And of course this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the amazing stories that have already been concluded and are available in trade paperback form. I may talk a lot of shit about comics that suck, but I fucking love this industry, and if you check out some of the books I've listed here, you will see that it's not without good reason. I think the comic book medium has the potential to tell some amazing stories that straight print and movies can't fully capture, and books like these illustrate that though the full potential of comics is rarely realized, when books that get this close come along, they are certainly worth paying attention to.
Found any weird, bizarre, stupid or funny comics that
should appear in a future "Tales From the Longbox" column?
Email Protoclown and let him know!
Originally Posted by Copper
And to Tetsu: Check out Les Bijoux (I have a feeling I'm butchering the spelling) if you haven't already. It's the same artist as Tarot Cafe (which is a fab book, too!) I Luv Halloween is just...wrong on so many levels (but I find myself flipping through it anyway.) and Bizenghast needs to come out quicker, dammit!
Originally Posted by Poxpower
Warning to everyone: DO NOT BUY HEAVY METAL MAGAZINE.
Unless you like paintings of hot women doing things like riding motorcycles, cutting off the heads of ogres and kissing lesbian cyborgs.
The stories are shit though.
I've heard good things about Les Bijoux. I'll definitely have to check it out.
And, I Luv Halloween is so wrong it's right!
Actually, the stories range from awesome (like John Buscamares, and Awakenings) to awesomely bad (like The Kiss), but I'm usually pretty amused by them. And, there's almost always one really good story, and at least one "so bad it's good" story per issue. I dig it!
Of course, all the sexy sci-fi-girl paintings you mentioned don't hurt, either.
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