Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yes, 2000-2009 Counts As a Decade. It Doesn't Matter That There Was No Year Zero. Look, Just Forget It.

The decade just past was a good one for comics.

There, I said it.

Yeah, I know, there were some bumps. OK, a lot of bumps. The kind of thing that might occur over the course of, y'know, a DECADE. But as I've said many, many times before, when you don't see comics through the prism of superheroes--and I, personally, do not--you come away with a much rosier picture of the medium.

I don't know if I've brought this up before on this particular blog, so I may as well go over it again. I read comics growing up, but they were mostly of the Archie/Tintin/Uncle Scrooge variety. I enjoyed them in the unselfconscious way that kids enjoy things. Plus, I was a really nerdy, weenie little kid who tended to hide under his chair at the most subtle note of horror in his entertainment, and as early as the mid-80s, superhero comics were too grim 'n' gritty for my liking. I was enrolled in the gifted program in Grade 3, meaning I was comfortably surrounded by other nerds, and I actually thought liking superheroes--which at the time meant X-Men, and plenty of them--made someone too badass to hang around me. D&D was the same way, with its lurid mystique of occult worship and teen suicide. I think I may have been the most pathetic child ever.

At any rate, the floodgates finally opened for me in the early 90s, when Ken Butland, who was and remains my best pal on this Earth, developed an addiction to the Image comics of the time, and as with so many other things, passed it along to me. I'll admit that one of the other things keeping me out of comics was my somewhat OCD nature which required me to start reading stories at, like, the beginning (how drearily pre-21st-century-schizoid-man of me). Having a brand-spanking-new comics line available for my perusal really helped me appreciate just how much fun modern, mainstream comics could be. Don't get me wrong--I quickly realized that Spawn and its ilk were pretty terrible, and graduated to stuff like Bone and Sandman. But I'm pretty sure you need a visceral kick to engage the reader at that crucial, adolescent time when comics fans are born, and Image squeaked me through just as the window was closing.

Anyway. The long and the short of it is that the Big Two have always had a negligible appeal for me, and watching them choke and sputter and circle the drain in these last few years hasn't had any kind of emotional impact whatsoever. Let them go. Spider-man's not going anywhere; he and his kind live forever in those giant omnibus collections we were so lucky to be blessed with in this decade. And when I say they're not going anywhere, I mean they're not going anywhere. Even as their history gets venerated, elevated to popcult iconography by the culture at large, their future in comics seems more and more limited. The superheroes' natural home is and always has been on the Hollywood silver screen; now that the opportunity to make that evolutionary leap has finally come along, the corporate gatekeepers aren't going to let those pesky comics from which they sprung interfere with the REAL money. Comics have always been a bit of an embarassment to those peripherally involved with them, the bratty nephew of pop culture, and that's both good and bad. But once the gold rush starts, as it has, you'd better believe that the corporate megaliths are going to make sure that bratty nephew straightens up and flies right. No more throwing shit at the walls, or starting awkward political discussions at the dinner table. In other words, superhero comics, don't make us look bad the next time one of your products gets a movie deal and causes the spotlight to tilt in your direction.

Of course this puts superhero comics in the position that unchecked capitalism puts all popular art in, only more so: the compulsion to keep the content coming, but not to do anything weird or different that might upset the status quo. Not exactly a recipe for greatness. Is it really any wonder we're at where we're at right now?

Um. I'm fairly certain I had a point around here somewhere...

Oh yes. Well, as much fun as it is to write about this stuff, I don't have any attachment to superhero comics, so they serve best by steering the industry in wise directions (by accident, naturally). And for the last decade, I'm pretty content with that direction. Like I say, divorce superheroes from the equation and comics have been on an uptick in just about every way imaginable. Granted, that was almost inevitable after the bottoming-out of the early 90s, when comics hit a nadir in quality and then lost the majority of their popular following through poor business practices (not that the two things are unconnected, of course). But the good thing about this--and trust me, I know, I was there--is that the only people who stuck around after the bubble burst were the ones who really loved comics. It's not a coincidence that the second half of the 90s saw a head-spinning surge in quality for the medium; complacency gives way to rebellion, and enforced lameness breeds vitality once the dam breaks.

I think that amazing turnaround made the past ten years seem a little less exciting by contrast, but this was the decade when comics internalized the lessons of the 90s: edginess is cheap, the past is ever-present, and comics offer a unique opportunity to be a cutting-edge maverick. Comics have always had the potential to blend the populist with the personal in exciting ways, but I think the Aughts is the decade when the world at large finally started to get a whiff of this. Between the web and the bookstore, comics started to rebuild their audience--and this time, they were smarter and hipper than before. (And, OK, more cultish and socially backward. But in that way too comics are on the cutting edge: it's the internet age.) Comics aren't the ones trailing pathetically along after Hollywood's leavings anymore; now its the funnybooks that set the tone, delivering all the best TV shows and movies that the homogenized Hollywood media octopus can't or won't deliver, until they see the sales figures. Many of the decade's most significant movies--for better or for worse--were either based on comics or significantly inspired by them. I'm not talking about superheroes, now, but rather the likes of Sin City and 300 and V For Vendetta and A History of Violence and American Splendour and Ghost World. This is where movies, and thus, the culture, is heading--there's lots more where that came from. Increasingly, comics are going to be steering the culture, even if lots of people don't realize it.

On the other end of the scale, we had the web restoring cheapness and accessibility to comics, and thereby bolstering the numbers of that always-significant audience: the comics readers who don't think of themselves as comics readers. I'm referring here to newspaper strips, which have always had a weird, detached relationship with their four-colour cousins; classically, people just haven't connected their love of Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side with "reading comics", and the nerdier side of the family tree hasn't even attempted to build a bridge to this massive, potential mainstream audience. At any rate, that ship has mostly sailed, as print comics entered their decline and the web rose up to authoritatively take their place. Webcomics allow for pretty much anything, in format or content, for free, and with no gatekeepers to stand between the artist and the reader. The amount of suckage is vast, of course, but that's the glory of a truly populist medium--the chaff can be safely ignored, leaving lots and lots of wheat to be enjoyed. Provided you don't mind staring at a screen, of course. But hey! This was also the decade in which notable comics started to make the jump to print, often assisted by the old guard of the comics medium--Dark Horse has probably been best at seizing this opportunity so far, with their Achewood and Perry Bible Fellowship collections and moving Dark Horse Presents online, but most of the other companies have dipped a toe in the pool as well.

Anything else I could possibly say about webcomics has been said better already by Abhay Khosla, so go read that when you're done. In the meantime, here's


Seven Soldiers--What if DC had a giant multi-series crossover and nobody noticed? Of course, this was more a metacommentary on the idea of superhero crossover events than the real deal, since the characters featured didn't have their own books and were entirely at the mercy of Grant Morrison. But it's precisely because of that that we got such a tight, brilliantly told story made up of smaller stories with a firm authorial voice. Crossover epics were developed under the aegis of one man, Jack Kirby; it's only fitting that this, probably the last time we'll ever see it done properly, was also a purely one-man operation.

All-Star Superman--I got nothing. This is just the best Superman story ever, and possibly the best superhero story ever that isn't named "Watchmen". Everything I could say here is redundant if you've already read it, and if you haven't you're lazy and benighted.

Scott Pilgrim--See below.

Seaguy--It is what it is, and that's all that it is. Superheroes, cartoons, theme parks and vast media empires, all made to look very silly yet very serious. Morrison's work always has a deeper meaning, but this time out you're probably better just rolling with it.

We3--Dang, Grant Morrison again! My love of variety is tempting me to drop this just to give one of the other kids a chance, but it just wouldn't be the truth: Morrison is the best comics writer currently working. We3 is small but perfect.

Box Office Poison--This comic flirts with the kind of indie navel-gazing that I absolutely hate--hey, everyone, let's show how serious and important comics are by taking away everything that they do well!--so it should tell you something that it's on this list. Warm and true, this book is like hanging out with an old friend.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--Yes, the whole thing. Yes, Black Dossier included. Alan Moore's disastrous Hollywood experiences seemingly led him to steer what had previously been "just" a tremendously fun adventure book with a neat hook into a "unified field theory of fiction", showing off comics' "multimedia" nature and making a statement about the nature of intellectual property which can only get more interesting from here...

Black Hole--I feel like the ending veers away from the darkness the book had been staring at unflinchingly up until then (like some kind, hole-ish thing), but that's probably just what felt most truthful to author Charles Burns. Otherwise, this is a deeply unsettling Freudian mindfuck and a masterful slice of atmosphere and tension.

The Umbrella Academy--Did I say superheroes were dead? Oh, I didn't? Well, they're not, at least, not as long as witty and enthusiastic fans like Gerard Way have something to say about them. As tends to be the case, starting afresh with new characters in the key. This is a satisfyingly knotty and emotional romp, equal parts Wes Anderson, Edward Gorey, Stan Lee and Mike Mignola.

Phonogram--Love of music is magic, a fact made literal in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's beautifully drawn valentine of a comic. Like Scott Pilgrim, this is a comic that manages to blend slice-of-life with the fantastical in a way that's uniquely suited to comics, and although it takes a more intellectual frame of reference, the creator's love is leaking out of every panel.


Scott Pilgrim--Can't claim to be objective about this one; it's like this comic was made for me, specifically.

Nextwave--Warren Ellis calls it "pure comics". He is correct.

Seven Soldiers

Y: The Last Man--It can grate a little in that Joss Whedon aren't-I-precious kinda way, but I have never seen anyone read the first volume of this and not instantly demand the second. Movies are often cinematic, but this is the first true "TV comic" (and I mean that as a complement).

The Goon--Warren Ellis does NOT refer to this one as "pure comics", but he would not be incorrect to do so.


She-Hulk (Dan Slott issues only)--Like all the superhero books on this list aside from All Star Superman, this book succeeds because it focuses on an obscure or purely original superhero character, meaning that there are still things that can be done with them. That said, this one does do a lot of bipping and bopping with the minutiae of the Marvel universe, but Slott's love for this stuff is so pure and unrestrained that he actually made me care. Me!

All-Star Superman

Top Ten (Alan Moore issues only)--The original run was probably the Magus's most satisfying story arc since the 80s. The two spinoffs, Smax and The 49ers, helped flesh out a world that sadly would be continued only in a halfhearted fashion by lesser (though not untalented) creators.

Runaways--What the--a Marvel comic starring NEW characters?!? And a great one, at that? Of course The House of Ideas managed to screw it up by delaying the later issues until all the heat around the book died down, but it never stopped being great. The true heir apparent to the sprawling soap operas of the 70s, only more fun.

I'm leaving off Bone because it was mostly in the 90s, and the second half wasn't as good. I haven't read Blankets, Asterios Polyp, Criminal, or any of Bryan Talbot's stuff. I *almost* included Conan, just for the spectacular first 15 issues by Kurt Busiek, but I felt like the rest of it wasn't good enough to rate a "best of" list. conclusion...the aughts were a pretty good time for comics. Certainly they were the beginning of some massive changes in the industry, though of course lots of them won't be for the better. Still, it could be that the 00s heralded a time when you could actually be proud to say, "Yes, I read comic books."

...OK, maybe we should give it a few more decades.

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