Too serious about comics.

Best Comics of 2013: Young Avengers

leave a comment

youngavengersIt’s fair to say that if you announce a new comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, we’re going to jump up and take notice. Unfortunately, this also means that if you announce a new comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, we’re going to have unrealistically stratospheric expectations for it. Unfair? Perhaps, but if you’re going to have the temerity to produce Phonogram, then that’s the curse you have to bear in return.

So, did Young Avengers live up to the burden of being a new GillenMcKelvie book? Not quite. Was it still a great comic? Yes. Was it one of the best of the year? Just about, but to which extent is largely dependent on just how much you were able to engage with the ongoing story. And if you happened not to care about Billy and Teddy’s relationship (sorry, Tumblr, but I couldn’t give a monkey’s), or couldn’t quite click with Mother as a strong enough villain for a thirteen-issue long story, then there might well have been times where this didn’t feel like the slam-dunk-brilliant series it could have been.

But a GillenMcKelvie comic is simply incapable of existing without at the very least flashes of inspired genius – and there were enough of these throughout the run that hinted at a more joyous and freewheeling series living just underneath the surface of having to set out to appeal to fans of Allan Heinberg’s original and (in this correspondent’s opinion) somewhat overrated run with the characters. Double-page spreads such as the “Being a superhero is amazing” sequence or the utterly stunning Noh-Varr “airplane diagram” gag, and other sequences like the Instagram montage, showed a writer-artist (and, come to that, colouring and production and editorial) team dedicated to pushing the envelope of comics storytelling for nothing other than the sheer joy of doing so. It was exactly the kind of exuberance we hoped for from a book called Young Avengers made by these people, and it’s only a shame there wasn’t a little more of it.

Whenever the character work was allowed to extend to the newer members of the team, however, the book felt truly on song – whether that be the Noh-Varr and Kate romance, the teasing hints into the character and background of Miss America (The Sensational Character Find of 2013? Almost definitely), or the continuation of the Journey Into Mystery-initiated Kid Loki story (surely one of the best long-form character stories in recent comics history). Any or all of these storylines could have made for a great series of their own – but in Young Avengers they found themselves jostling for attention just a little too uncomfortably.

In truth, though, it’s far easier to nitpick at something, or for it to come across as a disappointment, when you already have those unrealistically high expectations. Young Avengers was, for the most part, a thrilling, funny and energetic series, with often astonishing art from someone who’s already there or thereabouts at the top of the game but continues to get better anyway. By any normal standards it was at the high end of a very strong crop of books put out by Marvel this year – and after its imminent ending, it’ll be missed as much as the next Gillen and McKelvie project (whether that be Phonogram 3 or something else inbetween) is keenly anticipated.

Seb Patrick | 26th December, 2013

Best Comics of 2013: Pretty Deadly

leave a comment

prettydeadly-01Over the last year or two, Image Comics has transformed itself. Originally the home for artist-driven trash and later the place where indie up-and-comers cut their teeth, it’s recently become the home of some of the mainstream’s most exciting series from some of the industry’s top talent. You could fill a best of 2013 list with Image books alone and it wouldn’t look like you’d tried *that* hard to ignore the big two. We could point to any number of series released this year that show just how original Image has become, but we keep coming back to this one as demanding special attention: Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire.

Notionally, Pretty Deadly is the story of “Death’s Daughter”, an old west gunslinger named Ginny who rides a horse made of smoke and has a skull tattooed on her face. In execution, it’s a dark myth that marries Eastern storytelling with Western imagery. Narrated by a rabbit and a butterfly, it’s fair to say it’s not afraid to be ambitious and unconventional.

The ambition is probably what makes the book so compelling. In an era where many creator-owned titles are all about the high concept, Pretty Deadly is just as concerned about the poetry of its story. It’s as much mood as mechanics. You can imagine anyone turning the high concept of Pretty Deadly into a middling book ripe for adaptation into a shitty movie, but DeConnick and Rios have created something that’s powerfully, definitively, inseparably for the comics medium. Good luck to any screenwriter trying to wring three acts out of this.

It certainly helps to have an artist like Rios on board, a woman whose presence almost instantly raises the quality of a series (or have you forgotten that Spider-Island: Cloak and Dagger was one of the best looking books of 2011?) It’s hard to imagine how Pretty Deadly could work under anyone else. It needs the airy, expressive and ethereal visuals that Rios can provide, but it also needs her grit and texture. There’s a strong manga influence in the title, and a lot of that stems from Rios’ linework.

One caveat is that it’s fair to say that Pretty Deadly isn’t the easiest of reads. It’s complex and dreamlike and doesn’t want to patronise its readers. If you’ve ever accused a book of pretension for attempting to be lyrical or subtle or intentionally ambiguous, you’ll find all that here, and more. But the fact is that it looks and reads unlike anything else in the medium, and just three issues in it’s got the rare distinction of being at the bottom of my pile every time there’s a new issue released. Not because I want to put off reading it, but because I want to make sure I can give it the time and concentration it deserves. I don’t know about you, but that, to me, is what says great work.

 

Best Comics of 2013: All-New X-Men

leave a comment

anxmThere was understandable trepidation when Brian Michael Bendis was announced as being the new head honcho of the X-Men franchise. Even if you’re a fan of his work (and I’m very definitely that), it’s fair to say that his weaker efforts have genuinely coincided with the times he’s been on team superhero books – for whatever reason, he just hasn’t been able to make them work. What’s more, the premises of the two X-books he was taking over were each controversial in their own way – having Cyclops lead what is essentially “the baddies” in Uncanny X-Men, while having the original X-Men jump forwards from the past into the present day in All-New.

While the merits (or otherwise) of Uncanny remain a debated question, however (even among the Alternate Cover team, but check out our podcasts for more on that), it’s fair to say that despite being viewed with suspicion by many in comics in advance of its launch, All-New  has been something of a success. It’s certainly the best team book that Bendis has written, something that can probably be attributed to the fact that its setup – and a double-shipping schedule that means it’s already put out twenty issues since its launch last November – is actually a pretty good vehicle for what he’s good at: which is to say, lots of scenes of characters talking to each other in an entertaining fashion, and the odd “Whoa!” moment.

Whether it works for you will, of course, depend on whether you buy into the premise – as someone with a fond regard for the original X-Men characters who by the same token has never been especially wedded to any of the other pre-Morrison lineups, though, it suits me just fine – although even in doing that, one has to overlook what its probably the book’s biggest flaw. It simply doesn’t make sense, given the Marvel Universe’s floating timeline, to have a group of characters who can’t be from any further than about ten or fifteen years ago show up in the present day and be baffled by the concept of bottled water.

And yet this, or the fact that Emma Frost doesn’t talk with the right accent, or the fact that there’s not actually been that much plot, or the fact that it’s lost a little momentum in the fallout from Battle of the Atom, are things that it’s easy to overlook when a comic is so terrifically entertaining as this. It’s breezy, it’s funny, it features career-best art from Stuart Immonen (the kind of artist for whom “career best” means they’re hitting another level entirely from most mortal comics artists) – and it is, quite simply, the kind of comic that jumps out of the read pile each time it comes out. Bendis finally seems to have hit upon a group character dynamic that he can work with, undoubtedly helped by the fact that it’s such a familiar group dynamic that he can play with its established tropes a little – and this version of Jean, in particular, makes for a fascinating addition to the present-day Marvel universe.

Indeed, as with Superior Spider-Man (Marvel’s other current “man, this really shouldn’t have worked but somehow kind of does really well” concept, but we’ll come to that later), it’s a setup that you know can’t last beyond a particular point, yet the way it’s been done you hope that certain elements (in this case the presence of Jean) are allowed to continue beyond its natural end-point. Comics that surprise you (in a nice way) are definitely Marvel’s stock-in-trade at the moment, and even a book with their highest-profile set of characters, written by one of their highest-profile creators, has managed to do just that.

Best Comics of 2013: A Matter of Life

leave a comment

amatteroflife80dpi_lgJeffrey Brown originally came to popularity with his “Girlfriend Trilogy” – an interlinked set of ruthlessly honest works (Clumsy, Unlikely & Any Easy Intimacy) that helped define the character of autobiographical comics for the 00s alongside the likes of James Kochalka and Craig Thompson. In the years since then Brown has diversified, releasing pop-culture parodies, two volumes of observational cat comics, animating a music video and making a film – but it’s not unfair to say that the various autobiographical works he’s released in that period weren’t exactly breaking new ground. They stuck heavily to the template of his earlier pieces, and even though they were still funny, well-observed and relatable, they had a tendency to feel tempered by Brown’s advancing age and the more stable emotional context of having settled down.

That’s all changed in his latest offering. A Matter of Life feels like Brown re-focusing on his autobiographical work, bringing to it some of the additional invention and vigour that he’d previously been ploughing into other endeavours. For the first time, this autobiographical work is presented in full colour. For the first time, it opens with a multi-page sequence of meditative illustration, rather than throwing you straight into the autobio material. And for the first time, it presents its themes overtly and consistently. That’s not to cast aspersions on anything that’s come before, but where Brown’s previous autobio was by character uncertain and raw, A Matter of Life feels confident and assured. It’s the work of someone with something to say, about huge topics like religion, life, death, fatherhood and family.

At the same time, it retains those qualities that made Brown’s work so readable in the past. At times it’s hilarious, at times its touching, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Like all good autobio comics, it doesn’t just help you understand someone else’s experiences – it can help you understand your own too. And it looks as good as Brown’s work ever has, from the bright, bold, textured colours to the note-perfect facial expressions and body language. The cover alone is a brilliantly crafted and realised image, but Brown has taken as much care with every page inside, and it’s rare you can say that about a comic of any sort.

The usual disclaimers do apply, of course – if you find autobio comics insular, naval-gazing and self-indulgent then there’s little here that’ll likely change your mind. But if you’re a fan of Brown, or the genre (and we are) then it’s as strong as anything you’ll find within it. If anything, the main problem with Brown’s work is that it’s so consistently good that it’s almost hard to notice when he puts out something even better. But A Matter of Life is a visible leap forward for him as a creator, and when composing our best books of 2013, it felt wrong not to acknowledge it for that reason alone.

James Hunt | 23rd December, 2013

Best Comics of 2013: Batman Incorporated

leave a comment

batmaninc13It’s that time again! Over the next ten days, we’ll be running through our ten favourite comics of 2013 – the first seven are in no particular order, followed by two individually-chosen runners-up, and a unanimous Best of the Year to be revealed on the 31st…

It’s fair to say that the high watermark of Grant Morrison’s epoch-making run on Batman was reached some time ago – although your own mileage may vary as to whether that happened around the time of the Black Glove storyline, Batman RIP, or the Dick Grayson-starring Batman & Robin (as far as I’m concerned it’s the middle one). The momentum of the whole thing was seriously hampered by the New 52 relaunch occurring slap bang in the middle of Batman Incorporated - partly as it meant Morrison seemed distracted by a disappointing Action Comics run, and partly because of the ridiculous continuity retcons that were never going to reconcile with this intricate and all-encompassing long-form story.

As Incorporated drew to its conclusion, however, some of the spark of the run’s better moments began to return – to the extent that despite an erratic shipping schedule, every issue (aside from the non-Morrison fill-ins) that came out in 2013 was individually fantastic. It helped that Morrison was working with a consistent artist once more – and, what’s more, an artist who had developed from being a reasonable substitute for Frank Quitely into a genuinely excellent and inventive superhero storyteller of his own. But it was also noticeable that, after a fair amount of meandering around the place (and despite the brilliance of the cliffhanger that first introduced it, the “round the world” concept of Incorporated had simply never resulted in any particularly compelling stories), the drama was back in full force. Kicking off with January’s issue #7, the stakes were raised, the human tragedy hit home (the impact of #8 managing to survive having the major plot point deliberately spoiled in the press in advance), and the story actually became about something again.

Crucially, Morrison was finally able to finish spelling out the second major message of his Batman run (the first, of course, being “every story is true”) – that as the most enduringly popular exponent of this most serial of storytelling forms, one thing that will always remain true is that Batman will keep coming back, the stories will keep going around on the same cycles, and that that’s actually kind of okay. Realising that his final issue was an opportunity to ease Batman into a new beginning (one that, in fact, had already overlapped with him) liberated Morrison from having to deliver the sort of truly satisfying, closure-laden and downright spectacular ending that it might have seemed like the seven-year run demanded. It was enough, simply, to remind us that whatever might happen, whatever might seem to be taken from him, and whatever anybody might attempt to change (whether that’s Talia showing up to wreck his life, or DC deciding to handwave away most of his backstory for the sake of a new banner to put on their books), the Batman abides.

I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.

Seb Patrick | 22nd December, 2013

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

one comment

magicwordsIt’s tempting to wonder if anything new really needs to be said about Alan Moore or his career at this point. Despite moving out of mainstream comics some time ago, he remains the go-to figurehead for curious broadsheet or television journalists who’ve decided they want to profile someone in the industry; and from the controversy over his non-involvement in the Watchmen movie (and indeed, before that, the V For Vendetta movie), to the co-opting of V’s mask by the Anonymous movement, there’s always been some ongoing storyline that keeps his personal profile high even when that of his actual written output is low. We all think we’ve got a handle on Moore, and that we know what he’s all about – even when that handle involves willfully misunderstanding the tone of comments made in interviews, and choosing to take his theatrically-declared disenchantment with the superhero industry personally.

It’s unlikely that Lance Parkin’s new biography will win over a fortysomething Green Lantern reader who sees Moore’s comments as an affront to everything they stand for – although they’d be well-served to read the chapter in which Parkin meticulously spotlights just how textured and devilish his sense of humour actually is, as it’s a facet of his character that comics blogs and news sites tend to miss entirely – but for those who are already positively inclined towards him, it’s an enlightening and entertaining trip through his life and work. Without quite feeling truly exhaustive – Parkin admits the futility of striving to cover absolutely everything in the fullest detail, particularly those passages of his career that have been written about almost constantly since the 1980s – it nevertheless offers plenty of fresh perspective, both factually and interpretively, even to the most seasoned Moore fan.

Crucially, while so much previous writing on Moore centres solely on his work, this is far more – and indeed, as a priority – a biography. To that end, perhaps the most eye-opening chapters are those that cover a period so rarely written about: the time between Moore’s leaving school, and arriving on the comics scene. While his late ’70s cartooning as “Jill de Ray” et al has been discussed elsewhere (although even then, Parkin finds more to dig into than most, and the reproductions of Maxwell the Magic Cat strips are a constant delight), it’s genuinely fascinating to read about his involvement in the Northampton branch of the Arts Lab movement; and while Moore has always sought to define himself by the idiosyncrasies of his home town, it’s rare that anyone else looks at how it shaped his development as an artist, as Parkin does here.

When moving on to Moore’s actual career, meanwhile, the liveliest sections are those that land either side of his most celebrated and widely discussed transatlantic work. The story of Marvel UK, Warrior and the rest of the early ’80s British comics scene could happily expand into a terrifically entertaining book of its own, while Parkin is more interested than most Moore scholars in exploring exactly why the 1990s Image work, and the assorted and curious publishing and ownership situations around America’s Best Comics, actually occured. And having taken such careful steps to get inside Moore as a person, the various disputes and controversies that have arisen throughout his career feel less like the random, unreasonable kicking-out of a madman that the comics media so often like to portray them as. That’s not to say the reader will always agree or sympathise with Moore in any given situation – and Parkin certainly doesn’t, occasionally directly admonishing him – but there’s always at least an attempt to understand why they occur.

While Parkin’s fair-mindedness and attention to factual detail might be the most obvious assets the book has to offer a hardcore Moore fan, as a publication in its own right its strengths lie more in the author’s zippy and engaging writing style (no surprise to anyone who knows his Doctor Who work, but it makes reading it an absolute breeze without ever feeling simplistic or lacking), and in its physical presentation. It’s always a delight to see a book that’s so firmly aware of itself as an object in this heavily digital age (and I say that as someone who reads plenty of ebooks) – and while its heavyweight cover, gorgeous blackened page edges and title-bearing paper strip undoubtedly contribute to the slightly eye-watering £20 RRP, their effect on the book’s desirability can’t be denied.

From a perspective like ours, it’s difficult to judge whether Magic Words will carry much appeal beyond the comics fandom that reveres Moore so – I’d like to think so, as it’s an accessible and entertaining read that should engage anyone with an interest in captivating British eccentrics, but it’s fair to say that reading about the ins and outs of Marvelman’s publication history occupies a distinct niche. However, purely on its merits as an Alan Moore biography for people who want to read an Alan Moore biography, it’s hard to imagine it ever being bettered.

Magic Words is available now, published by Aurum Press.

Seb Patrick | 9th December, 2013

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 11 (November 2013)

leave a comment

altcover11We’re back! And sooner than usual! Well, it would have been, if technical problems hadn’t caused us to be releasing this episode a full week after we recorded it. Anyway, unless you think such topics are now horribly unfashionable, listen on to hear us talk about Sandman Overture #1, Thor: The Dark World, and the conclusion of the X-Men: Battle of the Atom crossover. And then finally, when Seb takes on James in the ongoing Obsessed With Marvel quiz, there can only be one winner. Clue: it’s probably not going to be Seb.

OR IS IT?

No, it’s probably not.

BUT IT MIGHT.

You can download the MP3 directly here, listen to the episode in your browser via the player below, or get it for your preferred player via our iTunes and standard RSS feeds.

Seb Patrick | 12th November, 2013

101 Comics: Part Three

leave a comment

Part one covered 52 to Ex MachinaPart two was Fat Freddy’s Cat to The Punisher! What about part three? Well, read on to find out what my remaining thirty-four, alphabetically-sorted, instinctively-chosen favourite comics of all time are…

Read the rest of this entry »

Seb Patrick | 25th October, 2013

101 Comics: Part Two

leave a comment

On to the next thirty-odd entries, then, in my alphabetical list of the 101 comics that instinctively come to mind when I decide to name my favourites. Introduction and part one here. But for now, onward!

Read the rest of this entry »

Seb Patrick | 24th October, 2013

101 Comics: Part One

one comment

The format for this post is shamelessly nicked from the excellent Colin Smith, who recently posted a quickfire list of his 101 favourite comics – whether issue, trade, GN, strip or whatever – over on his blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. As he explained when introducing the list:

I’ve long thought that it would be a good idea for any critic – Sunday Supplement seer or Sunday League comics blogger – to make such a hefty disclosure of their preferences. Over the past few years, there’s been any number of times when I’ve wished I could point at such a list and say, “Actually, these are the creations that I’m most moved and inspired by.” Most often, it’s been me that I’ve wanted to point in such a direction. It’s all-too-easy to lose track of the things we love in the face of both babble and plenty. As such, what follows is nothing more or less than the 101 comics and strips – listed in alphabetical order – that I’d be most likely to rescue from a fire as of 14.14 on the 10th October 2013. Given how impossible it is to reach a definitive answer as to which options should be embraced, recantations and mea culpas are only to be expected.

I (Seb) liked the idea (not to mention the style of listing them) so much, and was also sufficiently emboldened by his suggestion that it’s A Good Idea for anyone who writes about comics to do, that I thought I’d do my own.

Here, then, is the first part (of three) of my list of 101, with the remaining 67 entries to follow shortly…

Read the rest of this entry »

Seb Patrick | 23rd October, 2013

%d bloggers like this: