The Dennis ‘D-Man’ Dunphy Memorial Awards: ComicsAlliance’s Best Comics of 2012, Part 3
About the Dennis 'D-Man' Dunphy Memorial Awards
Created by Mike Carlin, Ron Wilson, Mark Gruenwald and Mike Zeck, Dennis "Demolition Man" Dunphy was a wrestler who received radical strength augmentation treatments from Power Broker, Inc. Too strong for normal sports, Dunphy joined UCWF, a federation that routinely features mutants, aliens, Eternals, Beyonders and orange rock monster guys as challengers. After the collapse of the UCWF, Dunphy was drafted by Captain America to investigate Power Broker, Inc. and, donning cast-off elements from Daredevil and Wolverine's costumes, later saved Cap's life. D-Man was born.
D-Man spent the next few years going crazy every now and then, having heart attacks, punching guys dressed up like snakes, apparently dying in plane crashes, being frozen in ice, thawed out, and living among eskimos. The Power Broker drugs caused D-Man to suffer schizophrenia, and he stole plain old jewelry thinking it was the Infinity Gems, and eventually became the new Scourge of the Underworld. D-Man was killed by Sharon Carter this year during an altercation with Captain America. Ms. Carter assured the authorities it was in defense of Cap's life, but who really knows with her.
Dunphy is survived by two cats named Socks and Boo, a collection of old TV Guides from the '80s and a sock puppet he named "Earl." We honor his "life" and "work" with a celebration of more of the great comics we at ComicsAlliance enjoyed this past year.
BEST COLD WAR EYEPATCH MELODRAMA
Written by Garth Ennis
Artwork by Goran Parlov and Lee Loughridge
Published by MAX Comics
Available: Comics shops
The Dave Johnson covers alone are enough to make you pay attention to this third attempt at a Garth Ennis Nick Fury series set amidst the land of Marvel's Mature Readers. Since its inception in 2001, Marvel's MAX line has given us a few notable projects -- Alias, Deadpool MAX, The Destroyer, Wisdom -- but if there's a prize for combining quantity and quality, Garth Ennis gets the gold medal. His Punisher comics for the MAX line (and various related spin-offs) are widely considered the heart and soul and blood and guts of the Marvel imprint. Ennis's MAX version of Frank Castle was driven and heroic and terribly flawed and vicious and iconic, and some of the best stories from Ennis's Punisher run were drawn by Goran Parlov.
Parlov and Frank Castle return in this new Fury MAX series, though the latter is only a bit player who appears once the comic settles into its history-hopping groove. This is a series about Nick Fury, specifically about his involvement with conflicts around the globe since the end of World War II. It's subtitled "My War Gone By" for a reason. Seven issues in, the series looks to have established its pattern: a few issues about American interventionism gone wrong, with Nick Fury near the center of the action, and then repeat. Each time it's a new debacle: the prelude to the Vietnam War in Indo-China, the Cuba crisis in the Bay of Pigs, and Saigon in 1970. Ennis seems to be using the series as a way to tie his interest in the history of warfare and combat and the human cost involved (see previous works like War Stories or Battlefields for examples) with an ongoing cast of characters that can be used to provide both a storytelling spine and a handy framing device.
This is old man Fury looking back on the not-quite-so-good-old-days, and it's smarter than it needs to be while still providing plenty of moments of visceral melodrama. Fury MAX might just be about sex and violence and politics and war, but it's really about those things and doesn't just use them as convenient set decoration.
MOST THRIZZLING COMIC
Rather than describe how funny an absurd Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle #8 was, let me just quickly tell you what ground it covers. The issue pivots from eight pages of jokes about a madman talking about trains to a Murder, She Wrote parody that features goats. Then there's a page of fake ads followed by some biographical material about a swordsman obsessed with the direction in which one should cut. It wraps up with a story about how the moon landing was a big heist, while there's a running gag at the bottom of the page about weird salad dressing ads. There was no other comic this year like this.
In addition to that issue's unparalleled comedic prowess, Kupperman also was the creator of some of the year's best political cartoons over on The Huffington Post. They were ridiculous depictions of a ridiculous presidential election, and they did more to encapsulate the political theater of 2012 than anything that tried to jab Barack Obama or Mitt Romney on a particular issue or soundbite. Kupperman nailed it.
BEST CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE COMIC
You begin reading the entry for Adventure Time #10 on ComicsAlliance's Best of 2012 list. You pause a moment, crack your neck back a little, and adjust your headphones. There. Oh, this is a good song.You wiggle your butt just a little. A bit of dancing never hurt anybody. >>If you are familiar with the Adventure Time cartoon and comic series, skip to paragraph three. If you are not familiar -- first off, what is wrong with you it is a good show you should watch it -- continue on to paragraph two. <<
The Adventure Time comic is, naturally, based on the Cartoon Network show about a very excited human boy named Finn and his stretchy dog friend, Jake, two best friends on the hunt for adventure in a magical postapocalyptic world inhabited by sentient breakfast foods, candy people, sassy old elephant ladies, elemental wizard kings with a proclivity for kidnapping princesses and all sorts of other interesting oddballs. A comic series launched earlier this year from Boom! Studio's all-ages imprint, kaboom!, written by Dinosaur Comics' Ryan North (who recently broke Kickstarter records with a campaign for a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure version of Hamlet) with art by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. The comic series has been every bit as good as the show, with epic magic battles with an evil Lich, a multi-part time travel story, and a host of backup strips by some of the best indie cartoonists out there. But as impressive as those issue have been, issue #10 has proven to be the most ambitious yet, with a Choose-Your-Own Adventure hook that is flat-out great. >> If you weren't paying attention to this paragraph and just sort of skimming it, read it again. If you are interested in Choose-Your-Own Adventure continue to the next paragraph. If you are hungry, go eat a sandwich and come back. I will save your seat. <<
Issue #10 starts off with Finn and Jake getting magicked by the Ice King (he's the guy who likes to steal princesses), placing their free will in the hands of the reader. What follows is a series of escalating choices that lead you down multiple story paths which branch out to yet other choices and other story paths, until eventually you find yourself on a two-page spread where six different choices are playing out across the pages. It is a really clever issue, with every story being developed enough to make you want to experience them all. >> If you want to read the wrap-up paragraph, continue on. If you want to skip the last paragraph and go on to the next entry, I guess that's like, your prerogative. I mean, it kind of hurts my feeling a little bit, but whatever, y'know? Oh, and also uh, you step on a trap and you fall into a pit of hungry crocodiles. THE END. <<
It's a great issue, with wonderful writing and art, and a perfect example of the elasticity of the comics form, and a reminder that the stories you tell are limited only by your imagination and how hard you want to work to make them fresh and interesting. And you live happy ever after with a magic box that gives you sandwiches whenever you want one. THE END.
BEST SUPERHERO COMIC ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MUCH, MUCH EARLIER THAN 2012
By Basil Wolverton
Published by Fantagraphics
Available: Fantagraphics store, comics shops
When you think "Golden Age Reprint," perhaps you picture Captain America slugging Hitler,
or Superman throwing gangsters into the river, or the Justice Society smiling after a visit to the
aliens who lived in fairy tale land. Those comics are great and all, but beyond their iconic imagery and zest for life they aren't always that engaging as reading experiences. They are formulaic and stiff and over-earnest even as they try to be light-hearted stories for kids.
Originally published between 1940 and 1942, Basil Wolverton's Spacehawk doesn't play that game. It nods in the direction of that game, but the rules it makes up and the variations it attempts gives this classic-but-barely-remembered- series a weirdo flair and a thrillingly unsettling sensibility. Spacehawk is not your father's sci-fi adventure comic. It's maybe your grandfather's sci-fi adventure comic, if your grandfather was an imaginative oddball who may not have played well with others, but was always entertaining to watch.
If you thumbed through the massive Spacehawk tome published by Fantagraphics -- it looks and feels like a Taschen art book, more than a comic -- you'd find the entire run of Wolverton's series about the outer space hero who calls himself "Spacehawk," and a quick flip might even remind you of some kind of Buck Rogers Technicolor serial as designed by Robert Crumb. That impression wouldn't be wrong, and there's definitely a Saturday-matinee-meets alt-comix energy to Wolverton's work in this book.
But there's even more to it than that. Wolverton gives us stories worth reading, partly because they show an artist engaging with the culture around him -– Spacehawk becomes a wartime hero a third of the way through the volume, turning his attention from Venusian princesses to more terrestrial foreign threats – but mostly because the short Spacehawk yarns in this volume are fast-paced and seemingly improvised and relentlessly unorthodox. Wolverton's work feels too dangerous and strange to have been allowed on the same newsstand as All-Star Comics or Superman, but it was a contemporary of both of those far-more-tepid Golden Age series. Spacehawk is the freakishly charming sideshow to the more popular main event, but everyone who's seen its wonders would find themselves bored with what the guy in the big hat in the center ring is babbling on about.
Fantagraphics hasn't reframed or high-culture-ized Spacehawk with this new presentation. What they've done is something more vital: given that pulpy Basil Wolverton comic the size and weight it deserves and brought it back to our attention
MOST ASTONISHINGLY SUCCESSFUL REDEMPTION OF AN "EH..." SUPERHERO NOBODY'S EVEN HEARD OF EVEN THOUGH, FOR SOME REASON, HE'S IN TWO REALLY BIG MOVIES
Why in the world should Hawkeye get his own series? He's a second-string hero, or at best a basement dweller on the first string. He's a wisecracking everyman, but he's no Spider-Man. He's a square-jawed all-American hero, but he's no Captain America. He's a latter-day Robin Hood in a colorful costume, but he's no Green Arrow. Sure, he was in the biggest superhero movie ever made, but he was also the marginalized extra, the Jeremy Renner among the Chris Hemsworths and Scarlett Johanssons. For all his vaunted skills as a marksman, he's never hit the bullseye in his bid for the big time. Hawkeye is not a hero of distinction.
Which is what made him the perfect guy for Matt Fraction and David Aja's brilliant makeover. Hawkeye the series has revitalized Hawkeye the character, and the key was recognizing that nothing new or valuable could be achieved by presenting him as a generic spandex superdude. We don't need another hero; not if all that hero offers is the usual formulaic derring-do and glossy thrusting. So writer Matt Fraction took a different approach. He embraced the fact that his guy isn't Spider-Man or Cap. Sure, no-one reviles him as a menace, but no-one really respects him as an icon either. In fact no-one really thinks about him at all. He's not the brightest, or the strongest, or the most inspiring hero in town. He's a blue-collar guy who likes to chase a girl, drink a beer and bum around in sweatpants. Fraction finds the humor and charm in showing us a superhero who thinks like a hero but looks and acts and talks like a guy.
And then there's David Aja. Aja's work on Hawkeye has been a revelation. This is a book and an artist that have emerged together as a sensation worthy of celebration. Aja's storytelling on Hawkeye is exceptional. In every issue he finds ingenious ways to pace and propel the narrative and to frame the action. He creates time and movement on the page in a way one might call cinematic, but to do so would be a tremendous disservice to comics. This isn't Aja aping cinema. This is Aja tapping into the full potential of the medium. This is comics.
BEST HIGH CONCEPT ALL-AGES BOOK THAT MOST OF OUR READERS CANNOT ACTUALLY BUY
You know how every now and then, you see a comic with a concept so awesome that it actually makes you angry? Like, it's just too good, and you're mad at yourself for not thinking it up? That's how I feel whenever I read Pirates of Pangaea.
The concept behind it is a simple mashup of pirates and dinosaurs: a time-lost land colonized in the 1700s, where buccaneers move inward on ships strapped to the backs of giant brachiosaurs and wage bloody battles with pistols and cutlasses while riding saddled T-Rexes. Cameron's visuals bring you everything you want to see with that concept. He and Hartwell don't just let the hook to the heavy lifting, though, and the story that unfolds of 12-year-old Sophie, an upper-class girl kidnapped by dinosaur pirates who tames a T-Rex, is engaging and thrilling. The pacing's great, too, with the weekly installments building to an old-fashioned serial cliffhanger every eight pages, keeping things moving at a breakneck speed.
Unfortunately, The Phoenix is currently distributed in only the UK, which means that most of our audience here at America's Most Beloved Comic Book Opinion Website™ can't head down to the store and pick up a copy every Wednesday. The Phoenix does offer international subscriptions, but since having a weekly magazine shipped across a literal ocean is something you can only do if you have Bruce Wayne money (or a pal in the UK who doesn't mind putting together care packages every two months), it's not really feasible. It's a shame, too, since there's a lot of other good stuff in there.
But there's good news, too: Rumors of an internationally available iPad version coming in 2013. If we can get a collection of the first PoP story somewhere in there too, we'll be able to go ahead and start sorting out 2013's best of the year list.
THE ED BRUBAKER & SEAN PHILLIPS COMIC THAT CAME OUT THIS YEAR
At this point it doesn't seem like a year in comics really happened without a great work by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. The creators of ComicsAlliance favorites Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito had a big hit in 2012 with their latest project, Fatale. On the surface it seemed like more of the glorious same, an explicitly noir project featuring a dangerous and beautiful woman and some dudes getting into some really bad trouble, the kind of story that Brubaker and Phillips have proved themselves exceptionally good at telling. But from issue #1 it was clear that Fatale was not going to be typically anything.
Breaking with noir tradition in more ways than one, Fatale puts the titular femme at the center of the story as the seemingly immortal Josephine guides readers through a decades-long tale about seduction and the supernatural, where every man she loves is cursed to a terrible fate, and where she is pursued by a relentless evil. Josephine's operated in the '50s, '70s and the present, and goes back as far as the 1930s -- maybe further. But what Fatale explores more than period settings is genre settings, and the effect of the femme fatale on pulp, crime, horror, the wild west, wartime adventure and beyond.
The twisty-turny plot is among the most addictive of Brubaker & Phillips' collaborations, but as ever what makes their comic book work so exceptional is its wholly immersive nature. These collaborators create a mix of words and images so potent that you forget you're actually reading a comic and not just living in one.
I'LL MISS YOU THE MOST, NOW THAT YOU'RE GONE
By Kou Yaginuma
Published by Vertical / Random House
Available: Random House store
I'm definitely the type of guy that prefers finite stories over eternally serialized adventures. I like books that get in, show me what the creators have got, and then immediately get out. Offer me a discrete experience that comes with both barrels blazing and I'm there, man. But sometimes stories end and I wish they'd gone on forever. Kou Yaginuma's Twin Spica is one such series.
I connected to Twin Spica in a big way. You know how you can be really, really into something as a kid and then totally forget you were ever into it? That happened to me. As I read Twin Spica, I remembered my days as a kid when I would pore over astronomy books and try to figure out how the universe worked. The mystery was fascinating and addictive, and Twin Spica nailed that feeling. It was uncanny, honestly, and the series soon became one of my favorites. It ended this year because the cast reached the end of their stories, and I found myself wishing that Yaginuma had actually padded out the narrative a little more. I just wanted another hit, even if it would compromise the integrity of the story.
Twin Spica is one of those comics that feels too good to lose. Buying comics is such a strange game, one fraught with "one bad issue" here and "new creative teams" there that you find yourself cherishing the books that hit the mark with every new edition. I know, I consciously understand, the fact that padding out Twin Spica would have been a mistake... but here am I, nonetheless.
It's a great little series, one that's well worth your time. There isn't any more, and I'll eventually figure out that that is a-okay. What we have? That's enough.
BEST COMIC ABOUT ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS WITH ACTUAL HUMAN FEELINGS GOD DAMMIT
Was there a comic book this year more emotionally devastating than Wet Moon's latest incarnation? Even if you hadn't read any previous volumes of the long-running graphic series about a diverse group of young women going to art school in a beautiful (occasionally hauntingly so) town in the American southeast, the sense of loss, dread, and brokenness that comes across this book are a marvel to behold. Ross Campbell, perhaps at this point better known for the relatively bombastic superhero series Glory, shows a delicacy in both his writing and art that most comics creators can't even pretend to have. Wet Moon is a world of characters whose stories are never told in other books, much less with the tenderness and truth that Campbell uses to cut his readers right down to the bone.
There is a sequence in this book that was for me the sequence of the year: one of the characters is on the phone, coming out as a lesbian to her mother on the other end of the line. Campbell so perfectly captures the horror of that moment -- that hope and that fear -- that the people who brought you into the world and told you they'd love you no matter what no longer will upon finding out who you really are. The horror that they'll reject you. The horror of having something so true and beautiful about you torn apart by those to whom you are most vulnerable. That is what is at play here in Wet Moon, and when the character's mother hangs up on her the anger and betrayal and hurt captured in the scene's final two panels, set against n otherwise black page, is a shotgun blast right to the heart. There are a lot of similar moments all through the six volumes Wet Moon, but that particular sequence -- just in the drawing of facial expressions from one side of a telephone conversation, is everything you know comics can be. The ability to communicate so much meaning and pain with sequential lines on a page is incredible.
Ross Campbell is an amazing cartoonist, and while there are a lot of examples of why his art is so great are out there -- his work on Glory and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just for a start -- if you really wanted to see this creator at the height of his powers in 2012, it was in Wet Moon.
BEST BARBARIAN HAIRSTYLE
All seven sons of Yoosamon had pretty great heads of hair, striated with the colors of the American flag. You've heard of redheads, right? Well Yoosamon's sons were red-white-and-blueheads (Yoosamon himself lost his hair and went bald, but he still had a pretty boss red, white and blue goatee). The greatest head of hair belonged to the greatest of his sons, however: Meric, the title character in Tom Scioli's American Barbarian, a science fiction/fantasy series in which Meric and his clan must defend what's left of human civilization from the robotic remnants of the old world.
Meric's red, white and blue hair grew long and luxurious, and made him one of the more striking looking figures to walk the post-Apocalyptic earth of New Earthea. And given the fact that Meric's greatest foe is Two-Tank Omen, a giant pharaoh with tanks for feet, there are obviously a lot of striking figures to contend with. Meric's mane practically glows, and perfectly matches the energy trail left by the enchanted Star Sword he wields in. In addition to having the best hair of any comic book barbarian, Meric also happens to star in one of the best -- well, most awesome (which isn't quite the same thing, but close) comics of the year.
BEST SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL, MULTi-DIMENSIONAL SUPER-SPY COMIC ABOUT DEATH
The third volume of Casanova was notable for several reasons: the move from Image Comics to Marvel's creator-owned Icon imprint, full color rather than the two-tone look of the previous installments, the triumphant return of artist Gabriel Bá (more on that later), the revelation of Newman Xeno's true identity, and four issues as opposed to seven. Some hardcore fans didn't care for the structural changes, but the story, the ideas, and the execution were all strong enough to continue Casanova's reputation as one of the most energizing books of the last few years.
Casanova manipulates the form and idiom of the adventure comic book in interesting ways, relaying autobiographical events through the super-spy genre to tell a story that's always challenging and never predictable. The darkest arc of the series so far, Avaritia concludes the first act in spectacular style: by bundling up a a bunch of extant storylines and setting them on fire. A fascinating, kinetic read, the highlight of the volume is the unbelievable artwork of Gabriel Bá, whose style has definitely evolved while he was away on other projects during Casanova's second volume. Modular timelines, rotating universes, the collapse of the space-time continuum, giant robots, and panda murder have never, ever looked better.
FANCIEST PANTS COMIC
Brendan McCarthy and Al Ewing's Zaucer of Zilk is about a lot of things. It's about the inevitability of getting older, it's about celebrity, it's about transformations and magic and friends and power and responsibility and being a hero when nobody expects you to be and remembering who you are and growing up a little. It's a pop art fairy tale that sets the controls of the yellow submarine for the heart of the second star to the right, and straight on till morning. And it's all told through the prism of eye-meltingly psychedelic art.
Zaucer of Zilk is also a comic that, while dealing with some very heavy concepts, never lets itself get bogged down by the weight of its message. I mean, the main character, a powerful wizard named the Zaucer of Zilk -- it's a title, like the King of Siam -- has to track and trap a magical pair of technicolor Fancy Pants to sneak into an evil wizard's dimension. It's a comic where that same character has to disguise himself as a tooth and has a best friend who's a blue talking dog. It's full of bad puns and great characters. In the land of Zilk, Ewing and McCarthy have created a fantasy world with its own logic that works with minimal exposition or explanation. Of course he has to track the pants down and wrangle them onto his legs. It's the perfect mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, expressed with an even-handedness that keeps the whole thing from tipping too far into either full-blown po-facedness or twee tediousness.
Track it down. Just read it. It's a keeper.
BEST DESECRATION OF THE MEMORIES OF VENERABLE GENIUSES
We haven't been demanding all that much from our revisionist history in the past few years. As a culture, we've decided that it's OK to pepper a few zombies into a classic piece of literature here or make the greatest president in American history a vampire hunter there. It's not that those works are bad, they just seem... let's say uninspired.
Were lucky we have Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra to make up the difference. The characters in The Manhattan Projects, most of whom are the real-life scientists who participated in The Manhattan Project, the government initiative that resulted in the development of the atomic bomb, are far afield from what history affirms they were. Robert Oppenheimer never had a serial killer twin brother. He also never ate alien brains. Albert Einstein never knocked out a smarter alternate-universe version of himself and replaced him in that reality. Harry Daghlian died from radiation poisoning, he never became a floating, irradiated skull in a special suit. He died.
Yet in Hickman and Pitarra's world, all these things did happen. And anything could happen, because there is an unlimited universe of possibility. These creators didn't take the world as it was, and these characters as we know them, and just shoehorn in a few aliens. These creators have rearranged their characters' lives and realigned their DNA to make them their own standalone fictional characters. There's the real Richard Feynman and then there's immense egotist Richard Feynman, who figured out a way to project the reawakened consciousness of President F.D. Roosevelt onto a television screen. There's the real Wernher von Braun, and then there's the Wernher von Braun who has a robot arm and kills a room full of Nazi scientists so that he's the only one with the Knowledge of the Science left.
Hickman and Pitarra dispose of the story of the atomic bomb -- which involves Harry Truman presiding over an elaborate Masonic ceremony while scientists reboot FDR's brain -- in the series' third issue. And then they go well beyond it. The creation of the greatest horror of our time is barely the start of what The Manhattan Projects will cover. If that were reality, it'd be terrifying. As a story, it's captivating.
BEST SUPERHERO COMIC DESIGNED SPECIFICALLY FOR TABLETS
The ComiXology app for the iPad (and other tablets and phones and whatever you're into) has given us immediate and convenient access to all kinds of comic books, from the newest, sold-out-at-your-local-shop Image books to those "Age of Apocalypse" tie-ins that you read when you were younger but don't have handy when the nostalgia kicks in. And as the digital format becomes increasingly popular, everyone's inching toward original comic book content for these portable electronic devices.
The best of the bunch, as far as superhero comics are concerned, isn't the fanciest or the most interactive or the most motion-tastic: it's the one that packs the most exciting, rapidly accelerating story into brightly-colored, cleanly-drawn panels. It's the one that builds on the old and does something new, in the simplest, most effective way possible. It's a good story, well-told. It's Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen's Justice League Beyond.
Operating outside the confines of DC's New 52 line and using the mythology of the decade-old Batman Beyond animated series as the backdrop, this 99-cent, semi-bi-weekly digital original gives us the continuing adventures of future Batman Terry McGinnis and the Justice League of the mid-21st century. Superman is here, partly gray and partly more somber after the losses he has suffered. Warhawk, son of a former Green Lantern and a former Hawkgirl, remains a pugnacious part of the team. Micron has replaced the Atom. Kai-Ro has replaced Hal Jordan. Aquagirl has replaced her father. And the Jack Kirby-created Big Barda is a vital member of the team.
Almost immediately, the breathlessly-paced plot events take the characters from a Kobra cult to Dinosaur Island to Project Cadmus to far off space, where they get involved with what's left of the war between the New Gods and the forces of Apokalips. A few times during the run of Justice League Beyond, the main action takes a break while we flash back to various origin stories drawn by guest artists -– Eric Nguyen draws Warhawk's story, James Bouwer draws Aquagirl's, Ben Caldwell draw's Barda's -– but while those artistic showcases look nice, it's the Fridolfs and Nguyen main tale that's most worthwhile.
This is a Justice League comic that's bound up in the iconography of the DC Universe, but it's not burdened by the events of the past, and Fridolfs and Nguyen don't seem overly concerned about making the issues seem weighty or portentous or even cool. They seem like they want to tell a story that zips along and has emotional stakes and plenty of conflict. They do it exceedingly well.