Thursday, December 24, 2009

10 Best Superhero Comics of 2009

The following are my favorite superhero comics published this year, the top titles of which will also fall into my forthcoming best comics of 2009 list.  There are some titles I didn't get around to checking out this year, unfortunately, such as Gail Simone's Wonder Woman, Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four, and Robert Kirkman's Invincible (still)...but other than those few stray series, I was pretty immersed in the various universes of superheroes throughout the year.  I like to do a separate list for superheroes (and manga) because literary comics tend to overshadow genre works, even though I really, really love superhero books too.  I feel I need to highlight the best the year had to offer, so here are my personal favorites...

1. Spider-Woman (Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev) - Bendis and Maleev's new Spider-Woman ongoing series is a very dark book, featuring a troubled protagonist who is having a hard time adjusting to a post-Secret Invasion world, as well as her abduction and subsequent replacement during the event.  I love Maleev's art.  It's very gritty, but beautiful, rendering Jessica Drew and her various locales with plenty of detail and thoughtfulness, using color to fantastic effect.  I think Maleev's gritty style in the overall comic is one of the reasons I felt a strong sense of deja vu with Bendis' Alias, which was drawn by Michael Gaydos. That MAX series was also dark, with a similar pacing to the panels. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bendis originally wanted to use Jessica Drew in Alias before folding Jessica Jones into the title. I think this is using a character he loves in the way he originally intended, and doing it to quite magnificent results.  But in this book, Jessica Drew uses her detective skills (and superhero background) as an agent of S.W.O.R.D., hunting down alien threats (of the skrull variety), which makes sense given her recent history.  Drew's various affiliations of the past also make for fun conflicts, as Hydra comes into the fold very quickly, and her loyalites are, as always, tested.  Jessica Drew hunting down skrulls is a great hook in itself and so far, it's been executed in such a high quality way that it deserves the crown of best superhero book of the year.

2. Incredible Hercules (Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Clayton Henry, Salva Espin, Rodney Buchemi, Dietrich Smith, Ryan Stegman & Takeshi Miyazawa) - Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente know how to write a great straight-forward superhero book. I never really expected to like a book like this, featuring a big oaf with brute strength as a protagonist, with a smart nerdy sidekick. Sure, there are some flaws in the storytelling, and it may be a little hard to put into words what I like about it so much, but I just love reading it. The stories are great: battles with Amazons, teaming up with Namora, going on an odyssey with other gods to take down a skrull god...they're just a lot of fun and I really look forward to the next collection the moment I've finished with one. If it weren't for the word-of-mouth this book has been getting, I probably never would have picked it up. I'm just happy that some others see it for what it is.  One big flaw for me is the inconsistency of the art.  I feel like Marvel doesn't bother pairing the greatest artists on books like this, that may have lower sales than books with bigger name characters and a team of heroes.  I also wasn't a fan of the "Dark Reign" arc.  I like events in the superhero universes for themselves, but when other titles have to tie in to those events, those books tend to suffer as we saw with Incredible Hercules and Ms. Marvel.

3. Batman and Robin (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Philip Tan) - When Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely work on a project together, they execute really great ideas to spectacular results.  Morrison's stories are both weird and classic at the same time, and are always full of lots of energy and enthusiasm, and Quitely perfectly executes the writer's vision.  Unfortunately, Quitely is not the only artist on this series.  While I'm fine with Tan on a lot of other superhero titles (including Green Lantern), he just doesn't seem capable of conjuring up the iconic, impactful images that Quitely does.  But what artist would be able to follow up Quitely without criticism?  And so what could be an excellent series falls into the realm of a great series due to the inconsistency that seems to plague Morrison, as we saw on the art with New X-Men as well.  But that being said, I love the dynamic between the new Batman and Robin, as they've really breathed a fresh of breath air into the tired relationship of student and mentor.

4. S.W.O.R.D. (Kieron Gillen & Steve Sanders) - S.W.O.R.D. is a fantastic new comic book series with a great premise. Spun out of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's excellent run on Astonishing X-Men, Agent Brand is running the Sentient World Observation and Response Department, the government's answer to threats from outer space, a compliment to their S.H.I.E.L.D. division.  With a fun crew of characters, including Beast and Lockheed, this book is one of the funnest comics I've read in a long time, with a great balance of action, humor and verbal sparring, with clear storytelling courtesy of Steve Sanders.  Brand's battle with Death's Head is an instant classic.  I hope plenty of people come onboard for this series, because only two issues out, it's already got the makings of a great.

5. Green Lantern (Geoff Johns, Philip Tan, Doug Mahnke, Ed Benes & Marcos Marz) & Blackest Night (Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis) - I've spent a good amount of time over the past few months reading Green Lantern comics (starting with Green Lantern: Rebirth) to get caught up so that I could read Blackest Night and know what the hell was going on.  And I'm very, very glad that I did.  Geoff Johns really brings Hal and his friends to life in epic tales, particularly in events leading up to the endgame, which sees the dead rise and face their former friends and colleagues.  Johns demonstrates that he puts a lot of thought and care into both story and character development as he spins his stories, and he really knows how to stage a great universe-spanning event and execute it without disappointing.  I love the different colored rings and the aliens he has wielding them and what they stand for, and even the complicated relationships of the secondary characters.  All-in-all, I think I prefer Green Lantern to Blackest Night because I enjoy the events leading up to the big battle, and also Green Lantern focuses more on what Hal is doing with the bearers of the other rings to find a solution to the Black Lantern menace, while Blackest Night seems to be more a stage for the other heroes of the DC Universe to confront those they've lost along the way, and hold down the fort until Hal returns.  Which is still a damn good time.  The titles are pretty closely-linked though, so I decided to rank them together, and I think we can all agree that Geoff Johns is brilliant, and I can't wait to see what other ideas he has in store for his readers.

6. War of Kings (Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Paul Pelletier) - Full of shocks and surprises and great, epic scenes, the latest cosmic superhero conflict from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (Annihilation: Conquest) sees a battle between royalty as Blackbolt, the Inhuman king of the Kree, and Vulcan, ruler of the Shi'ar empire, declare war, a conflict that has been brewing for some time.  Meanwhile Lilandra seeks to reclaim the throne of the Shi'ar with the aid of several X-Men including Havok and Polaris, as well as the Starjammers.  There are several twists throughout this six-issue mini-series, the most shocking of which occurs at the end of issue four, which probably takes the crown for biggest surprise of the year for me.  I also really enjoyed Paul Pelletier's art, which reminds me quite a bit of one of my favorite superhero comic artists, Alan Davis.

7. Agents of Atlas (Jeff Parker, Gabriel Hardman, Carlo Pagulayan & Dan Panosian) & X-Men vs. Agents of Atlas (Jeff Parker, Carlo Pagulayan, Gabriel Hardman, Chris Samnee & Carlos Rodriguez) - The main Agents of Atlas title is very retro, with a gorilla man, a robot and flying saucers, but Jeff Parker uses these elements very well and has plenty of surprises up his sleeves. The premise is very Fifth Season Angel, as the agents run an evil corporation while trying to do good things with it, and presenting themselves as villains to the likes of Norman Osborn and even the "good" Avengers to keep up appearances. I love the whole cast, even if the women steal the show in my eyes.  The two-issue X-Men vs. Agents of Atlas is also quite excellent - I actually prefer it to the main series a smidge.  Parker certainly has his Atlas characters nailed down, but he proves that he can write the X-Men just as capably in a fun little story that sees a misunderstanding forcing the teams into combat.  Fun stuff.

8. Captain Britain & MI-13 (Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, Ardian Syaf, Mike Collins & Adrian Alphona) - Paul Cornell's series just kept getting better as it chugged along, culminating in the fantastic "Vampire Nation" arc featuring Dracula on the Moon, its finale. There's an interesting feel to this book that you don't really get with other superhero comics. Must be the whole British thing it's got going on. Great cast, great villains, and a great annual featuring Captain Britain's wife, former Excalibur member Meggan.  I'm sorry to see such a great title canceled so soon, but it had a wonderful run and ended on a high note.

9. Ti-Girls Adventures #34: Parts Three & Four from Love & Rockets: New Stories #2 (Jaime Hernandez) - Jaime Hernandez gave Penny Century the powers she always wanted in the first Love & Rockets: New stories, and completes that story in the second annual issue of the book he shares with his brother Gilbert.  Jaime brings an extraordinary amount of creativity to his work, and it seems like in a science fiction/superhero book such as this, he pushes that innovation to the Nth degree, with quirky rival teams, evil time-traveling future-selves, and all sorts of odd goofball action thrown into the mix.  Jaime illustrates this story beautifully, demonstrating once again that he is one of the most gifted cartoonists working in the medium, often playing with the art and offering striking images that ensnared my eyes as they passed over them, and made me recall them long after I'd read the story.  Even flipping through the pages as I wrote this review, I found myself enchanted by the panels all over again.

10. Dark Avengers (Brian Michael Bendis & Mike Deodato) - Norman Osborn's team of Avengers are mostly villains, much like the Thunderbolts (many of them were Thunderbolts, in fact), but are dressed up like classic and current Avengers, taking on their codenames and being endorsed by Osborn as the "official" team. Hawkeye is actually Bullseye, Ms. Marvel is actually Moonstone, etc. It's great to watch the team bickering and doing villainous things when nobody's looking, and I love Osborn's right-hand girl, the steely, capable Miss Victoria Hand, whom I hope to get to know more of in future issues.  I particularly enjoyed the most recent storyline surrounding Molecule Man, and as always, Deodato's art is a treat to behold.

Honorable Mentions

Irredeemable (Mark Waid & Peter Krause)
Dark Reign: Elektra (Zeb Wells & Clay Mann)
Echo (Terry Moore)
The Sword (Luna Brothers)
Green Lantern Corps (Peter J. Tomasi & Patrick Gleason)

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