Comics: Lo Mejor del 2001

 “The Best of 2001”
Por Don MacPherson & Randy Lander
Publicado originalmente en The Fourth Rail dot com, 2001.

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Join Don MacPherson and Randy Lander as they take a look at their picks for the Best of 2001, starting with notable series and issues.

 

Randy: 2001 was a great year for comics. While Oni Press, Image and a variety of self-publishers continued their level of excellent output, the big guys rose to the challenge with some reinvigorated books, a creative renaissance not seen since the 1980s. Marvel in particular was pretty impressive, salvaging their lackluster Spider-Man and X-Men lines of books as well as launching the successful Ultimates, but DC had a few hits as well, not least of which were mainstream success stories like Green Arrow and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Don and I thought we’d do something we haven’t done in years and do a “Best Of” for the year in comics, but with so much good stuff to choose from this year, there were some really hard decisions to make in writing this piece.

Don: Not only were these hard decisions to make, but readers should keep in mind that even if Randy and I had unlimited comics-buying budgets (which we don’t, not by a long shot), there’s no way we could read everything that was released in the course of a month, let alone a year. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s move onto our first category…

 

Best First Issue

Randy: There were a number of first issues released in 2001, and that meant plenty of chances to hook new readers on a new mini-series or ongoing. This category recognizes which first issue did its job best, serving as an accessible entry point for new readers as well as putting out an irresistible hook to come back for number two.

Though it wasn’t a perfect read for me, The Legion #1 did a great job as a first issue, establishing an impressive sized cast and futuristic premise without alienating new readers, and providing a solid cliffhanger. Green Arrow #1 was also a terrific read, giving an overview of who Oliver Queen was and what he meant to the DC Universe, effectively eulogizing him before bringing him back at the end for what turned out to be a very entertaining new chapter in his life.

Don: The debut of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s Alias stands out as one of the best first issues of 2001. The art, with colors by Matt Hollingsworth, was haunting, and Bendis’s characterization was—no surprise—incredibly strong. Also no surprise was the strength of Ministry of Space #1 from Image Comics. Though a first issue of a three-part limited series, it stands up on its own as a well written and visually stunning self-contained tale.

Randy: Another gripping read was Slow News Day #1, Andi Watson’s story of an American student going to work at a newspaper in England. Watson combined solid artwork, a strong grasp of both cultures and a sense of humor to create a situation and characters that brought me back hungry for more with the next issue. Finally, while I still would have preferred it as a standalone graphic novel, I have to admit that Elektra & Wolverine: The Redeemer #1 by Greg Rucka and Yoshitaka Amano was a triumph in design, art and story, and left me quite anxious to see the remainder of the story.

Don: The funniest thing I read all year was easily the first issue of The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius 3: Monkey Tales. My local-comic-shop owner (at the time) and I howled with laughter while thumbing through its pages. Another strong start from Oni Press was Scott Morse’s Magic Pickle #1.

Randy: For the Best First Issue of 2001, though, my pick has to be The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1. Surrounded by hype and expectations, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley managed to impress me and make me hungry for more, wondering what the rest of DK2 would bring and if it might in fact live up to the reputation developed by its predecessor.

Don: Yes, December’s debut of a sequel 15 years in the making was great, but my pick for Best First Issue of the year has to go to Slow News Day #1 from Slave Labor Graphics. Watson’s continued focus on down-to-earth stories and his sense of humor impressed me as much here as it did on last year’s Breakfast After Noon.

 

Best New Series

Don: There aren’t as many candidates for this particular category, as many publishers, big and small, have been moving away from ongoing series to limited series (which gets its own category below). The first that comes to mind for me (probably because I just wrote up my review of the most recent issue) is Ultimate Marvel Team Up. Brian Michael Bendis has taken a fun but formulaic concept and breathed new life into it. He tried (successfully, for the most part) to steer clear of the traditional team-up concept, and the series has served as a mainstream spotlight for several wonderful artists with whom some readers might not be familiar.

Randy: Though there were several contenders for new series, this was a relatively easy category for me to pick from, as the best stood head and shoulders above the merely good. Though it hasn’t blown me away yet, Marvel’s Exiles provides an entertaining and fun read month-in and month-out, and serves as a light mutant book for those unhappy with the revolutionary style of Morrison or Millar, the uneven quality of Casey, or the stodgy traditionalism of Claremont. Marvel also served up a winner with one of their first MAX books, Alias, which lets Bendis loose to take on the gritty world of private investigators and washed-up super-heroes, and reads like a combination of “new Bendis” and “classic Bendis” as a result.

Don: One of my guilty pleasures in comics this year was a quirky series from Image Comics called Area 52, which both mocked and celebrated pop culture while still telling a compelling adventure with colorful characters. Though no single issues ever attained “Best of the Week” status for me or anything, the overall fun of the series, and the creators’ penchant to combine humor and a more grave tone in the same book, helped it stand out in my mind when thinking back on 2001.

Randy: No slouch in the new series department, DC also introduced a couple of winners in 2001, albeit one of them late in the year. Green Arrow was without a doubt DC’s biggest success story up until December, with mainstream accolades and broad acceptance in the niche market of comics as well. The Legion, though only two issues in at the time of this writing, is showing all the signs of being a good showcase for those characters as well, and it has rekindled my interest in the team, which I had thought was long gone after the slow decline in quality of the post-Zero Hour issues.

However, when it comes to picking a winner, I have to look outside the big two and give the nod to Queen & Country from Oni Press, Greg Rucka and a team of rotating artists. Despite initial discomfort with the style of the artwork, I’ve come to love this espionage book with every issue, and I keep hoping that we’ll see it on a more frequent basis in 2002.

Don: Q&C was one of my favorite new series of the year as well, but my pick for the Best New Series of 2001 has to go to Alias. For all of the reasons Randy cites above and more, it always finds itself at the top of my reading pile whenever it’s released.

 

Best Story Arc

Randy: Story arc construction has been a big deal of late, largely because it makes it much easier to collect stories into profitable and durable trade paperback editions, but as a bonus, it also tends to make books much more accessible to new readers than the sprawling and endless style adopted by many comics in the old days. This category is for those writer/artists that have put together a solid arc, compelling reader attention throughout and serving up great moments and a great overall story.

Without a doubt, Green Arrow #1-10, “Quiver,” has to be considered for this category, because Smith, Hester and Parks took one of the lesser DC icons and turned his book into one of the most compelling reads out of DC proper last year. A step over in Vertigo, Mike Carey and Peter Gross provided an impressive look at the politics of Hell in Lucifer #17-19, “A Dalliance with the Damned.” And Bruce Jones, Lee Weeks & Josef Rubinstein surprisingly topped the excellent “Severance Package” story in Spider-Man’s Tangled Web with their three-part story “Gentleman’s Agreement,” running in issues #7-9.

Don: Randy and I are both big fans of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, which is why I’m surprised a story arc from that DC/Vertigo title wasn’t one of the first he cited. Both “Sell Fish and Out to Sea” and “!Contrabandalero!” were both riveting character studies, and the latest story arc that just got under way, “The Counterfifth Detective,” promises to be just as fascinating. It’s hard to pinpoint one favorite story arc from Transmetropolitan, another Vertigo title; the entire series is, after all, one big story arc. The three-part “Dirge” and subsequent issues in which Spider Jerusalem deals with a growing illness made for powerful storytelling.

Though the work of writer Greg Rucka and various artists on Detective Comics has been wonderful as of late, it’s the backup features that stick out in my mind for this category. Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke’s “Slam Bradley” feature, leading up to the new Catwoman series, was a great film-noir tribute, while Judd Winick and Cliff Chiang have given Gotham City a fresh new face in “Josie Mac.”

Randy: The Ultimate books are the big winners for me in this category. Ultimate X-Men #7-12, “Return to Weapon X,” took off from the end of the first arc and provided an excellent second story, let down only by the weaknesses of the ending. On the other hand, Ultimate Spider-Man #8-13, the Kingpin story, had a terrific finale and very few weak spots throughout, improving on the already-impressive first storyline.

The biggest improvement came in Ultimate Marvel Team Up, though, where Bendis improved on a somewhat lackluster early set of stories to create an incredible gritty crime drama introducing Punisher and Daredevil into the Ultimate universe, with Bill Sienkiewicz providing stunning artwork to go along with it. For those reasons, and also for some very memorable dialogue from the Punisher, Ultimate Marvel Team Up #6-8 is my pick for Best Story Arc of 2001.

Don: This was the hardest decision to make of this batch of categories. Ultimately, though, I think I’ll have to go with the two-part “Sell Fish and Out to Sea” from 100 Bullets.

 

Best Single Issue

Don: As strong as the story-arc format is, there are those self-contained issues that pack an incredible punch in just 22 pages, give or take. They not only provide good jumping-on points for new readers and sum up the themes of the series, but they can represent some of the writers’ most potent storytelling.

Randy: For me, this was one of the toughest categories to pick, because there were some really strong choices this year. Some of the contenders were more mini-collections or original graphic novels that just happened to be in single-issue format, such as Ed Brubaker and Jason Lutes on The Fall or the multi-creator, multi-color jamboree that was the Oni Press Color Special 2001. Then there were the strong single issues in the midst of an otherwise ongoing series, such as Bendis’s status quo-changing Ultimate Spider-Man #13 or Brian Azzarello’s unusual take on the Kennedy assassination in 100 Bullets #27.

Some of the strongest offerings came from series that have rotating creative teams. Tangled Web #4, the first collaboration between crime writer Greg Rucka and 100 Bullets co-creator Eduardo Risso, was a fantastic look at how the Kingpin’s operation works for his average soldier and Ultimate Marvel Team Up #9 gave us a Fantastic Four story by Bendis and Mahfood that was hysterical and probably caused aneurysms in some of Marvel’s purist fans. Then there was Double Take #7, which introduced us to the genius that was Matt Fraction’s Rex Mantooth, Kung-Fu Gorilla.

In the end, though, I have to admit that my favorite story of the year is one that a lot of folks probably missed. For my money, Paul Jenkins, Mark Buckingham & Wayne Faucher turned in the best single issue of 2001. Peter Parker: Spider-Man #35 told the story of a young boy named Jamal and how his hero worship of Spider-Man helped him get through a difficult life, and it was funny and touching.

Don: A lot of Randy’s picks made my list as well, as is the case with just about every category you’ll find in this feature. My list includes some he didn’t mention, though, like “Two-Fisted Editor” from Transmetropolitan #51, which saw a supporting character finally get some time in the spotlight after more than four years. Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett blew me away with the first part of the “Officer Down” storyline in Batman #587, a story that stood up on its own surprisingly well. Rucka struck gold again with the first issue of the new Taliban story arc in Queen & Country #5, released in December.

The aforementioned Barry Ween 3: Monkey Tales #1 also made my list of fave single issues of the year. There are lines from that book, when they come to mind, still make me smile and laugh. An issue of Ultimate Marvel Team Up made my list as well: Bendis and Chynna Clugston-Major’s offbeat meeting of Peter Parker, his friends and the members of the X-Men, in issue #11.

My pick for Best Single Issue of 2001 is another comic book from Marvel’s Ultimate line, one Randy has already mentioned: Ultimate Spider-Man #13. The writer lobbied Marvel’s higher-ups, marketing people and even the online comics community as a whole to keep this issue’s big revelation under their proverbial hats, and the secrecy paid off with a powerfully human story.

 

Best Limited Series

Randy: Though I’m not ready to call the ongoing series a dead or dying artform, I have to admit that series with an ending, such as Preacher, Hitman, Starman or Transmetropolitan have made a strong argument for the self-contained story. With a mini-series, creators get a few issues to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, and though the “series of mini-series” is a common format these days, essentially serving as ongoing series with breaks in between arcs, the best of the mini-series this year provided a great read without any backstory or promise of sequels.

DC had a few outstanding mini-series this year, one of them within the pages of an ongoing series. Legion Worlds #1-6 was a terrific tour of the United Planets in the 30th century, reinvigorating my interest in the Legion and bringing me back for The Legion’s debut. Desperadoes: Quiet of the Grave was another taste of horror-tinged western from Jeff Mariotte and classic Western artist John Severin. Finally, although the first issue technically came out at the tail end of 2000, Sam Kieth made an impressive return to comics in 2001 with Zero Girl, his creator-owned mini from Homage.

Don: Another delightful book from DC and its Elseworlds imprint was Superboy’s Legion, a two-parter by Mark Farmer and Alan Davis. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again and Sam Kieth’s Four Women are both shaping up to be milestones in the creators’ careers as well.

Oni Press are the kings of the mini-series format, and 2001 gave us a few great ones. Another Adventures of Barry Ween is always welcome, and Monkey Tales, the third mini, was the usual mix of hilarity and preteen friendship that I’ve come to expect from Judd Winick, along with more than one story twist that I certainly did not expect. Magic Pickle, meanwhile, showed the kid-friendly side of indie auteur Scott Morse, and lived up to its wacky high concept with a fun story.

Don: Speaking of Scott Morse, his three-part Ancient Joe series from Dark Horse Comics might just be his finest effort to date. A tip of the hat must also be paid to Ministry of Space, even if that elusive third issue has been delayed repeatedly throughout the latter half of this year.

Randy: My pick of the year, though, is Hopeless Savages, also from Oni Press. Jen Van Meter and Christine Norrie, with help from Andi Watson and Chynna Clugston-Major, served up a very different story of family, sort of a punk rock Brady Bunch, that was very funny but also had a few things to say about being yourself.

Don: My pick goes to Andi Watson and his wonderful Slow News Day series once again. As a journalist in a modestly sized city, his take on the profession in a small town in England struck a significant chord for me, and his characters and dialogue convince me of the reality of this small corner of the world.

 

Best Ongoing Series

Don: This category is for those ongoing titles that didn’t debut in 2001. There are plenty of worthy contenders, several of which have already been mentioned in other categories, and maybe a couple that haven’t.

The first that comes to mind is The Flash from DC Comics. Writer Geoff Johns and penciller Scott Kolins have reinvigorated this mainstay of the DC Universe. While building on what has come before, the title is now exploring new areas in the world of the Flash. The setting—Keystone City—is among a number of strong new supporting characters, and the inclusion of some local politics have also brought new strength to the title.

Randy: I couldn’t agree more strongly about The Flash, which stands out as quite possibly DC’s best super-hero series at the moment. In a similar “always great but not getting near the attention it should be” category is Black Panther, which continues to shine in the hands of Priest, Velluto & Almond. I also have to mention the terrific takes on cops in a super-heroic world offered every month in Powers and Detective Comics, although Powers stands taller for me, given its consistently beautiful artwork by Oeming, Garrahy and Pachoumis throughout the year.

Don: Another one of my favorite ongoing books is the shining light of DC’s America’s Best Comics line by Alan Moore: Promethea. It serves as an educational and entertaining look at what might seem like thoroughly inaccessible subject matter: Moore’s spiritual belief in magic and the order of the universe. I also can’t forget Scion from CrossGen Comics; the swordplay-and-science title stands out as the publisher’s best offering, thanks to sharp art, compelling characters and intelligent subplots.

Randy: Along similar lines of unusual genres and approaches we have Age of Bronze, Eric Shanower’s impeccably-researched and thoroughly entertaining Image series detailing the Trojan War. And although they may not be as ground-breaking in terms of genre, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my continuing appreciation for Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man.

Don: Then, of course, there are those titles that have already merited mention in other categories. Transmetropolitan and Ultimate Spider-Man continue to stand out as among the best titles in comics, but in the end, I have to give the nod for Best Ongoing Series of 2001 to one of the most challenging, intelligent and dark books on the stands today: 100 Bullets.

Randy: It seems fitting to close out this feature with our first agreement on a category, as 100 Bullets continues to be a favorite of mine as well. In fact, it’s getting harder and harder to remember a time when 100 Bullets wasn’t my favorite monthly comic.