Best of 2012: Jay Gabel

I’m going to be talking a lot about each category, so my intro is going to be brief. For me, this has been the year of new books. You’ll notice that a lot of my favorite series began this year. The creator owned market blew up, and Marvel ended the year with a bang with numerous great new series under the Marvel NOW! imprint. I got nothing else. Here are my categories.

Best Writer
1. Matt Fraction (HawkeyeDefendersFF)
2. Jonathan Hickman (Manhattan ProjectsAvengers)
3. Brian Wood (The MassiveConanWolverine & The X-Men: Alpha & Omega, etc.)

Matt Fraction has a lot of really cool ideas.  He’s frequently put on books with an established lore and manner, like Thor and Punisher: War Journal.  These offerings are usually pretty dull, because Matt Fraction doesn’t work well with these kinds of constraints.  This year, he really got to cut loose on several titles.  Hawkeye was a surprise hit, finally capturing what made the character so appealing and finding an audience for his solo book.  FF is only two issues in, but so far is the kind of off-beat fun I want out of it (plus Mike Allred art).   The recently-cancelled Defenders had a very slow burn and was weeeeeeeeeird.  If you stuck with it, though, it all came together with an intense and addictive final act.  Matt Fraction’s books got me genuinely excited not just about comics, but superhero comics, and for that he gets my Best Writer top slot.

Jonathan Hickman is here for one reason: The Manhattan Projects.  The Manhattan Projects has been a phenomenal comic since issue 1.  It wins some stuff below.  When it was announced that Marvel NOW! would feature Hickman taking the torch from Bendis on Avengers, I was thrilled.  It was the kind of thing that, much like what Matt Fraction did, got me really excited for the book.  The first two issues didn’t disappoint.  It’s also worth noting both Fraction and Hickman were major contributors to Avengers vs. X-Men, which I thought was a very strong story after it’s shaky start.

Brian Wood has had a very good year.  The Massive, his new series from Dark Horse, has been one of the year’s best.  Also from Dark Horse, he’s continued the tradition of shockingly good Conan comics with favorite artist Becky Cloonan.  He also started doing a bit more mainstream stuff this year with several X-Men titles.  Round it out are some really beautiful and affordable collections of some of his earlier work, and Wood has cemented his place among my favorite writers in comic history.

Best Artist
1. David Aja (Hawkeye)
2. Fiona Staples (Saga)
3. Darick Robertson (Happy!)

My picks for Favorite Artist all have wildly different styles, which makes me feel more open-minded than I probably am.  To start off, my top pick was David Aja for his work on Hawkeye.  I’ve loved Aja’s work since his and Fraction’s earlier collaboration, The Immortal Iron Fist.  In Hawkeye, he seems to have simplified it slightly, going for a stylistic hard-line approach that gives the book a lot of it’s character.  His contribution to Hawkeye is so important that when he went away for two issues, the book noticeably suffered.

Fiona Staples art on Saga is, in one word, beautiful.  She can handle everything from the vast reaches of space to the most detailed facial expressions, and her use of bright colors keep it exciting.  What she really gets this award for, though, is her creativity.  The character designs she comes up with are glorious and defy explanation, but if you Google “The Stalk” you should get a pretty good idea.

Similarly creative is Darick Robertson on Happy!, his current Image mini with Grant Morrison.  Robertson’s art is the most realistic of the three, with insane detail and people who almost look like photographs.  Happy! is a Grant Morrison book, though, and that means you can expect weird trippy things.  Robertson manages to bring the same sense of realism to things as absurd as an imaginary, flying blue donkey.

Best Ongoing Series
1. The Manhattan Projects
2. Mind MGMT
3, Saga
The Manhattan Projects has been one of the consistently best reads on stands ever since the first issue hit.  Jonathan Hickman loves his conspiracy-laden historical fiction, and this is that at it’s finest.  His story of an alternate reality where the historical program of the same name has been aptly described as “The Justice League of Science,” and is complimented by Nick Pitarra’s wild art.  We kind of love this book here.

I wasn’t too familiar with Matt Kindt before I bought this first issue on a whim, but this is probably the coolest comics out there.  Mind MGMT‘s story is masterfully crafted and interesting through and through, but that only scratches the surface.  The back covers are fake advertisements with hidden messages.  Each page is underscored by rules from a mysterious handbook that add a sinister conspiracy-theory feel to even the most droll scenes.  This book often sits on my read pile for awhile, or I read it in segments, because it can almost be overwhelming.  I cannot wait for it to start back up.

Brian K. Vaughn is my favorite comic book writer.  Period.  Y: The Last Man is perfect, and if you haven’t read it, we can’t be friends.  I was overjoyed to find out he would be returning to comics with Saga.  At first, I was a little underwhelmed by the book, but around issue three everything kind of fell into place and it’s since been on of the most compelling, personal stories in an ongoing series.  Destined to be a classic.

Best Ongoing Series (Superhero)
1. Daredevil
2. Secret Avengers
3. Astonishing X-Men

I’m an admitted Marvel fanboy, but there’s no denying the fact that the talent at Marvel is top-notch right now.  I don’t talk about Mark Waid’s absolutely perfect run on Daredevil much, because EVERYONE is already talking about it.  I don’t really have much to say about it now, either, as it’s all been said.  With the hype, positive reviews, and awards Daredevil receives, you’re either already reading it or refuse to for some reason.  Best superhero book on the shelves since it began.

Secret Avengers is blessed or something.  The title was launched under Ed Brubaker, and after a few fill-in issues, got a new regular writer in Warren freakin’ Ellis.  Ellis’s run ended early this year, and this Rick Remender fellow I hadn’t heard of took over.  There’s a reason Remender became a rising star at Marvel this year.  He had some huge shoes to fill, and he succeeded.  He has a way with adrenaline-fueled superhero action, and the cast in the book is fantastic.  Granted, the AvX tie-in was easily the worst comic I read this year, but it was a story clearly forced upon him.  The book has since returned to form.

X-Men comics were my introduction into comic books, so they’ll always have a soft spot in my heart.  There are actually a handful of strong titles in the line, but Astonishing X-Men is probably my favorite.  I can’t justify it, because this one is clearly a taste thing.  I’m a child of 90’s X-Men, and this team and the style of superheroics presented here remind me of the feeling that era gave me, without all of the endless crossover headaches.  The series probably won’t win many new fans, but it’s a comfortable place for me, with some surprisingly pretty art.  Astonishing X-Men gets two big bonus points this year, though.  The first was the marriage of Northstar and his boyfriend in “Astonishing X-Men #51,” a landmark issue that featured the first high-profile, same-sex marriage in superhero comics.  The second bonus point is Marjorie Liu, who not only handled that issue maturely and successfully, but is overall a very talented female writer who’s not just managed to break into the boys-club that is comic book writing, but has written books that made headlines.  We here at Capeless like to give kudos for that kind of thing.

Best New Series
1. The Massive
2. Revival
3. Hawkeye

The Massive might be my favorite overall series, but I put it in New Series because it still has that “fresh” feeling.  It also doesn’t have a trade out yet, but I’m really grasping at straws with that one.  Anyways, I’m in love with this series.  Brian Wood’s story is quiet, almost muted, and that feeling is enhanced by the art (primarily by his Supermarket collaborator Kristian Donaldson).  At the same time, it’s very large scale, and the ecological disasters that end the world are interesting both in their core ideas and the uncomfortable amount of plausibility in all of it.  To be honest, the book also makes me feel smart when I read it, and I like feeling smart.

Revival is the best work that writer Tim Seeley and artist Mike Norton have ever done.  Their take on the zombie concept is original and a breath of fresh air, and has gotten glowing reviews all over the internet.  But Revival is also a bit more personal for me.  I live in Wisconsin, the setting for the book, and have most of my life.  This book captures the feel of a Midwest small town perfectly, and it’s actually much more interesting to read about than I expected.  This was one of the best surprises of the year for me.

Hawkeye is the first time that Clint Barton has had a solo series that truly understands what makes the character cool.  Fraction might be the best writer for Hawkeye’s personality ever.  He’s a street level hero who runs with literal gods, and the awkwardness that comes from that dichotomy makes for addictive dialogue.  Hawkeye is probably the most decorated series across the board at Capeless, and for a reason.  Also, David Aja’s art.  You’ll notice this didn’t make my list for Best Superhero Series.  That’s because two of the six issues had a fill in artist, and it dragged the book down tremendously.  Aja’s art is that important.

Best Mini-Series
1. Locke & Key: Clockworks
2. Happy!
3. AvX: Vs.

I got into Locke & Key last year, and it quickly has become one of my favorite comics of all time, up there with Y: The Last Man and The Umbrella Academy.  This year, it finished up and collected it’s fifth and penultimate volume.  Clockworks was to Locke & Key what Prisoner of Azkaban was to Harry Potter: a story of how the previous generation affects the current, and was just as good as anything that came before.  The final volume, Omega, is currently coming out, so if you haven’t read this series, get on that.

There’s still one more issue of Happy! to be released, but I’m counting it with 75% in.  I’m also standing by my earlier statement that Happy! would work better as a graphic novel and they should have skipped the single issue format, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has been damn good.  This has been one of my favorite Grant Morrison stories ever.  I don’t know what more to say, though, that I didn’t already in my review of the first issue.

AvX: Vs was a total guilty pleasure.  It took the classic geek-debate of “Who would win if X and Y met and fought?” and hands it to a bunch of Marvel’s best writers and artists to decide.  Sure, with the large number of creators, some of it was uneven in quality, and sure I disagreed with some of the results, but I couldn’t stop reading it because it was SO. DAMN. FUN.

Best Single Issue or One-Shot
1. Wolverine & The X-Men #17
2. The Coldest City
3. Deadpool #2

I really didn’t want two of my three favorite comics to be absurdist comedy, but by God, “Wolverine & The X-Men #17” and “Deadpool #2” were absolutely hilarious.  I already raved about “Wolverine & The X-Men #17,” which was the brilliant Doop-centric issue.  While I adore that issue, I may have laughed even harder at “Deadpool #2.”  Any comic that features Teddy Roosevelt punching a bear to death and Deadpool teaming up with the ghost of Ben Franklin before blowing up an elephant is something I feel everybody should read.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Oni Press’s The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.  This graphic novel came out earlier this year and kinda flew under the radar.  It’s a fascinating espionage story set around the fall of the Berlin Wall.  An MI:6 agent dies, but the list he was carrying of all known agents in Berlin isn’t on his body.  It was a great concept with great execution, reminiscent of movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Favorite Character
1. Hawkeye
2. Deadpool
3. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Clint Barton had one helluva year.  He went from being a reasonably B-list character to having a starring role in some really successful movie based on some team comic or something (where he was portrayed by an Oscar nominee).  As hype around The Avengers started to build, Hawkeye started showing up in more and more books, including a leadership position on surprisingly cool Secret Avengers (see above).  He rounded the year out with the debut of his solo book, which has really been the “it” book of the year.  It was a joy to watch my favorite character shoot through the popularity ranks.

I’m normally skeptical of Marvel’s habit of random renumberings, but Marvel NOW! came with some truly inspired choices in creative teams.  The most inspired was to take Brian Posehn, arguarbly the biggest comic nerd in stand-up comedy, team him with Gerry Duggan, his friend and Eisner nominee for the fantastic Infinite Horizon, and add the original artist for The Walking Dead, and put that team on the funniest character in comics.  Plus, Daniel Way is no longer writing the character, which is good for anyone.

I was a child of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and got into their current IDW series this year.  The thing that’s so great about that series is that it’s mature, but holds onto enough of the cartoon vibe to bring about the best kind of nostalgia.  It’s wonderful to have seen these characters grow up with their audience, and the series only seems to be gaining momentum.  I do my comic shopping at Capitol City Comics in Madison, WI, and every month the owner of the store increases his order.  Every month, he still sells out, and that makes me happy.

Honorable Mentions
1. Wolverine & The X-Men
2. Smoke and Mirrors
3. Bendis’s last Avengers story

Last year, Wolverine & The X-Men was on its way to being my favorite superhero book.  It had a quirky charm that always left me happy after reading it.  Then AvX happened, and the book screeched to a glaring halt.  This odd little corner of the X-Men universe was not a good fit for the sweeping epic of AvX, and a good portion of the run was taken up with droll stories that killed time until the book could finally get back to what it did best.  Since AvX ended, the book has regained momentum, but that ten-issue or so period dragged it down and kept it from being one of my picks for Best Superhero Series.

Smoke and Mirrors was an interesting mini-series from IDW that I reviewed pretty regularly on the old site.  As the first four issues came out, I was continuously more and more impressed with how much I enjoyed it.  A genuinely original and imaginative series, it was hurt badly by a rather weak conclusion.  It’s still definitely worth checking out, and I look forward to the next volume.

Brian Michael Bendis is a very polarizing figure for me.  When he was writing Alias and Daredevil, he was the best there was in comics, period.  I felt like he long ago lost his touch, and I really, really grew to hate his run on Avengers.  Avengers was the one title that I picked up out of loyalty, not because I enjoyed it.  This year, his reign of terror came to an end, and he shocked my by putting out what was probably the best Avengers story he ever did.  Not only was End Times a great superhero story in it’s own right, it felt like classic Avengers.  Best of all, he put all of the toys back in the box before he left.  Things like bringing The Wasp back to life not only cleaned up some messes he made, but also felt very respectful towards the title.  He then sets the stage perfectly for Hickman to take over.  I was very pleased with his exit.

Best Publisher

Dark Horse
Earlier this year, I would have been convinced I’d say Image.  They started the year out spectacularly, releasing several fantastic books like Saga and Manhattan Projects.  As the year went on, it felt like they flooded the market with too much, with several lackluster offerings (Bedlam) and some good stuff getting passed by in the process (I didn’t buy Nowhere Men, and I guess that was a mistake).  Add in a few business decisions that bothered me, and I had this epiphany: Dark Horse was quietly kicking everyone’s ass in quality.
I say quietly because I feel like you don’t hear a lot about Dark Horse.  They’re not one of The Big Two and don’t have the crazy hype Image has been pushing.  Dark Horse has had a bit of a renaissance this year, launching several great creator-owned titles.  I already talked about how The Massive and Mind MGMT are two of my favorite series right now.  Other writers here at Capeless have been saying good things about The Creep, and I need to check it out.  Hellboy has begun appearing in a new mini-series, and I’ve heard good things about the other B.P.R.D. books.  Meanwhile, Brian Wood started a run on their consistently excellent Conan series, and Kelly Sue DeConnick relaunched their classic Ghost series with Phil Noto.  Dark Horse also does the best collections and anthologies.  Conan got a few more of it’s beautiful trades, and they released a collection of Channel Zero that is an affordable must-own.  The crown jewel is still Dark Horse Presents, which launched The Massive and Alabaster Wolves this year.

Dark Horse surprised me this year.  I hope Disney buying the rights to Star Wars doesn’t screw them, because I think they’re currently doing the best things in comics.

Favorite Other Things
1. The Avengers
2. Andrew Garfield as The Amazing Spider-Man
3. Dan Slott’s Twitter

I’m not just talking about the movie, this whole year was the year of The Avengers.  Obviously, the movie was great, but that’s just scratching the surface.  The superb Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon had it’s second season, and it improved upon the first season in every way.  The characters are more defined, the story adaptations are well done, and the guest stars and cameos are a nerd’s wet dream.  When I heard a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent over an intercom get addressed as “O’Grady,” that’s the level of detail that I can appreciate as a fan.  I already talked about the passing of the torch on the Avengers comics.  Finally, just as a bonus, one of my guilty pleasures is the Avengers social game on Facebook.  Have you played it?  I have spent more time on it than most games I buy for $60.  Give it a try if you like RPGs.

Originally, I thought Andrew Garfield was too pretty to play awkward Peter Parker.  I was wrong.  His performance was possibly my favorite superhero role ever.  He captured the relatability that made Spider-Man such a popular character to begin with.  He and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy also had endearing chemistry.  It will be heartbreaking to watch her die in a sequel.  The Amazing Spider-Man was probably a pretty bad movie, but the direction and acting were so good that it was still immensely enjoyable.

Speaking of Spider-Man, current Spider-Man scribe Dan Slott has a Twitter.  It’s been one of my favorite things to follow this year.  It’s often funny as he teases false leads and deals with fanboy rage, but Slott has consistently had great insights into things like the presidential election and the Aurora shootings.  You should follow him too.

And that’s 2012.  I’m tired of writing.