Five! (And a brief intermission)

Now we come to the halfway point of my Comics! list. Adam surreptitiously got me to think about why THESE particular comics, making me rethink the reasoning behind this list. Simply put, it’s the comics I’m reading now, those I currently enjoy, those that may not necessarily get as much exposure as others (but, of course, neither Thor nor Hawkeye fit into this category), and those that are a good introduction into comics for those uninitiated (with the exception of Angel & Faith).

I first got into comics because of Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent Hellboy movie starring the incomparable Ron Perlman. (Who is in EVERYTHING.) Before that, I, classicist that I was, thought anything written before 1950 was not any good and that contemporary literature was passe and uninteresting, lacking any sort of relevance or power that novels before that had. Comics didn’t even enter into the equation, me thinking that they were just picture books for those too unaware of the greatness of Dostoevsky or Dickens. Then I saw Hellboy and realized that if a movie that awesome was based on a comic, well, then it was time for me to see what all these comics were about. Mike Mignola’s interesting blend of dark and stark panels, the magnificence of the statues and corpses he draws and the beauty therein in ruination and dilapidation made me realize that comics could be just as interesting and worthy as the dustiest piece of Russian Literature. I hope to inspire others to take the same chance, to read something new in a way they’ve never read anything else.

With the outpouring of superhero movies in the last twenty or so years — yes, twenty, as I count Blade to kind of be the start of a ‘serious’ comic movie instead of a very comic-y movie like Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman or the Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty — it’s easier than ever to pick up a comic and not be intimidated by the last 60 years of history behind it. These are stories that are just, simply put, good storytelling, just with pictures and speech bubbles.

So I guess I’m attracted to a certain type of story, which isn’t necessarily what most comic book lovers are looking for. I like the complete universe stories with definite endings. Though the DC and Marvel universes are escapist and so richly detailed, they’re not as alluring to me as something like Sweet Tooth or four out of the top five left on the list.

Number five is the last of the superhero comics. Remember when I said that JMS was one of two movie guys to make the list? The other is the exceptional Joss Whedon.

5.) Astonishing X-Men (Marvel) 2004-2007 — by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.

Now, before you start dissing on Whedon for his somewhat loud-mouthed fans, or for disliking his series, know that yes, I understand that Joss Whedon can be rather…difficult to work with and that his legions of rabid fans can be somewhat off-putting, but that doesn’t dissolve any of his talent or ability to make a good story. The dude is dang-talented and sometimes that lends itself to a big ego. Is that a bad thing? When interacting with people, maybe. When making fantastic TV shows and comics? Not necessarily.

This was my first (legit) superhero comic of the Marvel variety, not even to say of the X-Men variety. I was told that it would ruin other X-Men comics for me and while nothing can come close to its brilliance, I find myself still being able to read, say, Wolverine: Weapon X; Insane in the Brain and still enjoy it, even though it’s not nearly as well-thought out and detailed as Astonishing X-Men.

In case you haven’t gotten the memo, Buffy is just Joss Whedon’s take on Kitty Pryde, his favorite X-Men and she is featured prominently in this series and does she ever become much more than just the shadowy (ha!) figure. Sometimes writers don’t know how to handle superpowers well. Someone, like Kitty Pryde, may not necessarily seem useful, until given the right platform from which to evolve her powers and showcase just exactly how awesome they can be. Whedon does this perfectly, bringing a somewhat minor character to the shining forefront.

Like other Marvel stories, there is a whole lot of background for these characters and it can be daunting and somewhat difficult to jump in the middle. This being my first X-Men comic, I only had the knowledge base from the 1990s animated series to inform me who was who and sort of what had happened to them before this adventure. But, a few issues into the run, I found myself not caring whether or not I knew how Colossus had ‘died’ earlier, caring only that now he was back and that complicated things for Kitty Pryde. I didn’t mind that Professor X was off somewhere doing something with someone I didn’t know, only that his absence caused a disruption in Scott Summer’s leadership abilities. It was inconsequential how Emma Frost changed from being a member of the Hellfire Club to co-leader of the X-Men with Cyclops, only the ramifications that presented. Whedon’s story is so good that, even though I was missing huge chunks of X-Men history, I only became concerned with what was happening to these characters NOW.

It follows a few major story arcs, some being about the Danger Room becoming sentient and attacking the X-Men — as a friend of mine succinctly put it: “Was Star Trek mad?” — to everyone becoming victims of their own personal fears, leading to some of the most brilliant comedic scenes I’ve ever read in any comic, ever. Whedon has a biting sarcasm that mixes well with witty dialogue and truly heart-wrenching character development. To go from laughing to shock in a short time is one of his fortes in Buffy and, given how things change so quickly in comics anyway, Astonishing X-Men is no exception. Just like his other works, too, his X-Men run has a fairly complicated plot (for comics) and is best over a long-range, rather than issue-to-issue.

It was also very refreshing to have him take a step back from the (somewhat) ridiculous Wolverine obsession. I too, like a good short, hairy, clawed berserker, but, especially with the X-Men movies, Wolverine has become something more than he was ever intended to be. At his core, he’s a warrior, one who loses his temper, gets brain-washed entirely too much, and, at the end of the day, likes a cold beer more than he likes brooding about the things from his past he may or may not remember. The film version is a little bit more romanticized (not that there’s anything wrong with different interpretations of characters, especially from comics to the big screen) but I find I like the simplistic brawl-y, bub-talking Wolverine, than the Hugh Jackman version. Whedon utilizes Wolverine rather effectively, even parodying some of his toughness, while not alienating those who want a little more emotional depth.

Overall, this is a comic not to be missed. Yes, it’s hard to get into, especially at the beginning with so much background being needed for contextualization, but by the end of it, you won’t mind. There’s a big omnibus of Whedon’s run, which I recommend, because you won’t like the wait in-between trades if you start reading it.

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Comics!

After the fiasco of the first comic store I went to (recap: here), I found one in Boulder called Time Warp that is both a.) huge with a great selection of comics and trades, b.) very professional, and c.) the place where Adam and I got little figurines of Deadpool and Black Widow to be our cake toppers.

Everyone there is extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and not antagonistic toward those of a different gender / role-playing schtick.

Adam and I go there about once a week to peruse the selections. Neither of us are hard core comic nerds; mostly we just like to trade-wait for our favorites.

WHICH IS WHAT THIS POST IS ALL ABOUT.

Given the popularity of top ten lists, I’m going to count down over the next few days my favorite comics. Some are done with their storylines, others are still running. Some are new, well, all of them are new, so let’s not worry about the fact that none are older than ten years and just skip on ahead.

I mean, we all know that Sandman, The Watchmen, Fables, Hellboy and Y: The Last Man are fantastic and they need to be read. (I have yet to come to a consensus about Preacher being in this list, but that’s another bloggy post.) I think this Top Ten list can do without that which goes without saying. Most of these are a little indie, in that they’re not DC and Marvel, but every good list needs some recognizable heroes, eh? Awards go to those with outstanding writing, great art, and interesting plot lines. (Listen up, Hollywood. WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT IS LADY LOKI well-written superheroes. The two need not be mutually exclusive.)

10.) Sweet Tooth (Vertigo) 2009-2013 — by Jeff Lemire. I have never heard of Jeff Lemire, but the synopsis of this one is just too good to pass up. It’s post-apocalyptic Nebraska and there are animal-human hybrids. Young Gus is just such a one, a boy with deer antlers and ears (and, surprisingly, not the only comic on this list dealing with people with horns!) and after the death of his father, he does the forbidden: he leaves his compound to explore the rather messed-up world where those like him are ostracized and hunted.

Where the fun comes in is with the wackiness. I hate statements that start with “it’s part…” and then go on to say, “…and part…” but it’s part The Road and part Homeward Bound, equal parts horrific depression and cutesy uplifting and all of it is fantastic. The great thing about a comic that is so unlike anything else is that it’s hard to predict what will happen. Not knowing how the universe works yet and why things are the way they are makes adds tension and suspense and is a favorite plot device of mine. The creativity to make something like this is borderline creepy, but it works so well given the meager dialogue and heart-breaking plot.

Also, comics are some of the most emotive forms of entertainment and this one hits me right in the feels, bro. The art is evocative, being fleshed-out enough to give a sense of world-building and letting the known — farms and crops, trees and the sparseness of that climate — but is just a little off-putting to dish out a big ol’ heaping of defamiliarization so as to continue to exude a sense of wrongness about the world. You begin to care so much for odd little Gus so that when bad things happen to him — I mean, it IS post-apocalyptic, so it can’t be too happy — you almost dare not read ahead.

My only dislike is it seems to meander, as if the author didn’t quite know where he was going, which is not uncommon for serialized comics. But, given that I’ve read only the first volume Out of the Woods (#1-5), and at a 40 issue run, there’s still plenty of time to pull the many strands together and create a phantasmagoric coming-of-age story. This one was recommended to me by serious comic nerds, so I don’t take their words lightly.

Also, Lemire does both the writing AND the drawing. That’s a talented dude, bro.

STAY TUNED FOR THE REST, BAT FOLK.