The Best of 2009: The Best of the Rest

Pluto/20th Century Boys, by Naoki Urasawa (Viz)

The former is a heartbreaking retelling of a classic Astro Boy storyline, infused with Iraq war parallels and serial killer-thriller creepiness, the latter is a seriocomic end-of-the-world epic about a group of childhood friends who reunite as adults to save the earth from an evil cult that has its origins in their old gang. I'm generally not much of a manga fan, but I can recommend at least one of these series to pretty much anybody looking for a great read. An excellent story has no nationality, as these two brilliant titles demonstrate. Urasawa is equally skilled at writing memorable characters and dramatic situations as he is at drawing kinetic action sequences and genuine emotional reactions. - DH 

(I've been boring all the LBWers with this for a month, but I must get it out of my system: My greatest recommendation for Pluto is the fact that I haven't read most of it yet. This is because I foolishly told my friends about it and they've been serially borrowing it, volume by volume. I'll tell you what I think about the story maybe three months after it's done. - JM)

The Muppet Show by Roger Langridge (Boom! Studios)

Boom! Studios launched their new Boom! Kids line earlier this year, which features comics based on the Disney-owned properties Pixar and the Muppets. Time will tell if this arrangement lasts now that Disney is the new owner of Marvel. Hopefully nothing will happen that affects the Muppet Show comics that Roger Langridge has been writing and drawing because these comics are perfect. They are technically aimed at kids, but truly the target audience is the generation that grew up watching The Muppet Show. It is one of the most astonishing things I have ever encountered: Langridge managed to take The Muppet Show, a show that relied heavily on music, explosions, shouting and wacky puppet body language, and flawlessly translated it to the stagnant pages of a monthly comic book. It's mind-blowing. Each issue follows the structure of an episode of The Muppet Show, with skits, musical numbers, and a main backstage story. The comics also incorporate even the most minor characters from the show. A trade paperback was released that collects the first four issues, and if you are a fan of The Muppet Show it will be the best $10 you ever spend. - RG

Let's Be Friends Again by Curt Franklin and Chris Haley (Webcomic) I have already written all about how much I love this comic. What I haven't mentioned, however, is that it is now collected in a handy portable book! And the book has a quote from me on the back which is almost identical to the one from Chris Sims! But mine is longer. Read the comic! Buy the book! - RG

ComicsAlliance by Laura Hudson (Website)

ComicsAlliance is the comic news website/blog that I have been waiting for. Born from the ashes of the sadly short-lived Comic Foundry magazine, CA is a perfect source of comic book industry information, reviews, and comedy. Laura Hudson is, I am convinced, one of the coolest ladies in the world, and she has recruited some fantastic writers to help her out. Finally, a comic book website for the rest of us. - RG

Star Trek by J.J. Abrams

It was a relatively slow year for geek movies, compared to 2008. Really there were only two that generated any amount of hype: Watchmen and Star Trek. The former was a loyal adaptation of a book that had no business being a movie. But I didn't hate it. Star Trek was a bold re-imagining of a sacred text that no man dare mess with. And it ruled. Star Trek was easily the funnest time I had at the movies this year. Twice. Genius casting (including the sexy, sexy Chris Pine), stylish sets and costumes, and a really fun script made for a great beginning to what will hopefully be many more J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies. - RG

RASL by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

Jeff Smith's noir, sci-fi comic made it to my top ten list last year, and although the story hasn't progressed much since then it's still one the absolute best series on the shelf. The title character, RASL, is a dimension-hopping art thief who steals rare, famous works of art in one dimension and sells them in another. We all know that interdimensional travel has consequences, and RASL suffers from seriously messed up jet lag that leaves him physically ravaged every time he crosses into another dimension. Even worse, RASL is being followed through worlds by a spooky lizard-faced hit man who gets violent with RASL and his sexy lady-friends. Not to mention that, in one dimension, he runs into the woman he loved, whose name is tattooed on his arm, only she's a different person and doesn't recognise him. What I love most about this book is that it's real science-y science fiction—RASL's dimensional travel is explained with theoretical physics, not dreams dreamed by a wizard. We see flashbacks of RASL (who was Robert then), as a scientist working on a weapons defense project and eventually discovering how he can bend reality to cross into other dimensions. The noir overtones really perfect this book for me, as I love hard-living, loner characters - RASL is way more Parker than he is Fone Bone. Smith's signature art style is there—but the black and white is brilliantly spooky and barren. I can't wait for this series to finish and be put out in a fancy hard cover so I can read and reread and reread and reread it. - TJ

Dark Horse One-Shot Wonders by Lots of People (Dark Horse, duh!)

I love one-shots. Stand-alone comics are awesome for showcasing cool secondary characters who you want to see more of. They're good for putting a new (or classic) creative team on a series. And most importantly, they're a great comics gateway drug—a way to ease hesitant friends and family down the slippery slope of a mild interest in comics, to full on comics addiction. While my interest in the Dark Horse One-Shot Wonders was focused primarily on the Whedony stuff, I want to salute the whole thing in general. The Dr. Horrible issue was dope. I picked the outstanding variant cover by Kristian Donaldson (who drew Supermarket, and all the best issues of DMZ), and devoured the great interior art and the story that's as clever, funny and engaging as the original sing-a-long blog. The dialogue was maybe more proof that other people are better at writing Whedon than Whedon himself these days, but that's another blog post all together. Just a super fun issue and a great companion to the DVD. The Willow one-shot was somewhat meandering (another journey through the mind/psychedelic trip out issue that we've seen a couple times in Buffy Season 8), but I like Karl Moline, and I like Willow, and she's totally doing a sea-monster lady on the cover, so that's cool. Sugar Shock is a Whedon-penned comic about a girl band in space, which is pretty much an ideal description of a comic, if you're me. While I know that some people felt they were dropped into the middle of a story without understanding the universe, I felt okay just going along with it, since the universe was wildly entertaining. The characters were all awesome in distinct ways, and I'd read love to read a stack of issues about their adventures. I heard the Goon one was awesome too. Word up, one-shots. -TJ

Solomon Kane: The Castle of the Devil By Scott Allie and Mario Guevara (Dark Horse)

You may have encountered one of my pro-Solomon Kane rhapsodizations if you’ve ever spent any time on this site, but just in case: Solomon Kane, one of Robert E. Howard’s lesser-known creations (somewhere between Kull and Bran Mak Morn, I reckon), is also my favourite. Check it: Kane is a Puritan who travels the world righting wrongs and seeking adventure, as per standard Howard hero behavior, but the difference is that Solomon Kane, in true Puritan form, is an unshakeable pillar of morality. He will DO RIGHT, no matter the consequence to himself, because it is RIGHT.

The Castle of the Devil is based off of a Kane story fragment that I still haven’t been able to track down, concerning the Puritan and a traveling companion named John Silent getting wrapped up in supernatural craziness deep in the heart of the Black Forest. There’s swordplay and monsters and people falling from great heights – all of the requisite elements to delight my senses.

In addition to the excellent writing and art put into this project by Allie and Guevara, roughly a ton of very talented people ended up being involved in this project at one point or another: Dave Stewart did his usual fantastic colouring job, Mike Mignola created an absolutely beautiful cover for the trade, Guy Davis did some of the monster and building design (and guy Davis knows how to design a monster, I tell you) and on and on. I love this project so much – if only there were going to be another OH WAIT THERE IS. – JM

Beasts of Burden By Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)

The collection of dogs (and one cat) that star in Beasts of Burden made their debut in the Dark Horse Book of… collections a few years back, and what started as an interesting variation on the ghost, monster or whatever theme of each of the collections has become a full-fledged series, with ongoing plots and everything. And it’s one of the best horror-style comics to come out in for-ever.

The titular Beasts, who live in the sort-of titular town of Burden Hill, have been deputized by the Society of Wise Dogs to act in the defense of their community, which is being besieged by dark forces on a semi-regular basis due to Mysterious Reasons As Yet Unrevealed. Whatever the reason, however, the sextet has faced down such foes as a giant toad-demon, a rat king and the vengeful spirits of the restless animal dead, in a series that, though it is about, you know, fuzzy pet-types, is way creepier than basically any other comic that I’ve read in a long time. – JM

Cursed Pirate Girl By Jeremy Bastian (Olympus)

Cursed Pirate Girl is concerned with the life and times of, well, a cursed pirate girl. Starting out in Jamaica, she eventually makes her way to the fictitious-but-still-accessible Omerta Seas in search of her long-lost pirate father.

Now, the plot and characterizations in this comic are enough on their own to sell me on it, being as they are fairly universally super-interesting and –creative, what really blows my mind when I read it is the art, which resembles nothing so much as a late 1800s political cartoon. Wait, don’t go, it’s amazing. Picture intricate linework and people with bodily distortions that vary along with their level of social responsibility or degree of moral turpitude, so that a shady back-alley black-marketeer with dreams of upward mobility is rendered as mostly head, and grotesque head at that. This is a magnificent comic. – JM

Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory (Image)

Look, you know about Chew, as it’s one of the year’s big success stories: police officer with the unusual and gross power to read the past of an organic substance by eating it ends up using his power in the service of the FDA, which in his fictional world is all-powerful due to a Bird Flu-inspired ban on chicken. It’s inventive and inspired and a great cop series, plus it has terrific art.

But you’ve heard all of this before. Chew isn’t here so that we can spread the word or say something new and witty, it’s here because we’d be idiots if it wasn’t. – JM

MSPaintAdventures by Andrew Hussie (Webcomic) 

A new era in MSPaintAdventuring started this past April, and it’s marvelous. For those not in the know, MSPaintAdventures is a semianimated webcomic that takes the form of an old-school point-and-click/text-based hybrid game like Maniac Mansion or the Monkey Island series. As with the prior series, Problem Sleuth, the current one, entitled Homestuck, started out simply and gained complexity as the story progressed. At a basic level, it’s about a bot named John Egbert who is playing a new videogame called Sburb with his friend Rose. More expansively, it appears that John and his pals are embroiled in an epic struggle between forces of, well, light and dark, if not good and evil.

In addition to the fact that Hussie keeps things lively by taking reader suggestions for upcoming actions, and that the comic includes both catchy original music and fairly frequent and entertaining Flash animations, this is perhaps the most frequently-updated creative work on the Internet. Let me check… yep, it updated while I was writing this. When does he sleep? - JM

Atomic Robo: The Shadow From Beyond Time By Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Red 5)

Atomic Robo is possibly the perfect action comic. It’s funny, suspenseful, filled with explosions… I have never been less than delighted while reading it. Heck, if nothing Atomic Robo had come out this year but the Free Comic Book Day adventure – in which Robo has a firefight with one Dr Dinosaur whilst arguing that Dr Dinosaur couldn’t possibly exist – then I would be mentioning it here. As it happens, however…

The Shadow From Beyond Time involves Robo’s encounters with an extradimensional entity that exists outside of our concept of time and thus attacks him while existing backwards, from the present day to the 1910s. Robo first encounters it when the fantastic duo of Charles Fort and HP Lovecraft - who had fought the creature’s first iteration at Tunguska with Robo’s creator Nikola Tesla – show up seeking help against its second appearance. And then the creature possesses Lovecraft's head.

It just gets better from there on, with appearances by Carl Sagan and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne, and is a perfect continuation of one of my favourite series ever. - JM

Jersey Gods By Glen Brunswick and Dan McDaid (Image)

Jersey Gods is a book about young love, as Zoe and Barock find each other (they meet in a mall!) and navigate the perils and pitfalls of dating, buying a house and meeting each others parents.

Jersey Gods is also a Kirby-esque cosmic adventure book, featuring the inhabitants of the divided planet Neberon contending with the ramifications of a disastrous war, thousands of years in the past (that most of them were around for, though). Barock, Rushmore and Helius contend against Centrus, Deltus and Minog (among others, of course) in a struggle for the very planet itself!

It’s a fun romance comic and an excellent space-god adventure story, made all the better by the fact that the mixing of these two genres is really not something that I would ever have though would be successful. Way to prove me wrong, guys! - JM

Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause (BOOM! Studios)

Yes, the plot of Irredeemable is essentially “what if Superman turned evil”, but you know, that’s a plot that’s ripe with possibility, and one that DC Comics would likely have a substantially different take on the whole thing, especially the whole part where he kills millions of people. Well, maybe not in an Elseworld, if there were still Elseworlds.

So yes: Superman-analogue The Plutonian goes ape-nuts and starts wrecking the world, and nobody has a sweet clue what to do. The heroes are helpless and the villains are terrified. The Metropolis-analogue lies in ruins. And nine issues in, we only have about half the story on why the hell the Plutonian flipped out in the first place. It’s like reading a funhouse mirror version of one of my favourite things! - JM

Hector Plasm: Totentanz By Benito Cereno and Nate Bellgarde (Image)

Every time I try to elaborate on just why Hector Plasm is so great, I’m left flat-footed. I just say something like “It’s so gooooooooooooooooooooood!” and run away. But here we go:

Hector Plasm can talk to ghosts. He gets wrapped up in their (un)lives and helps them to move on, or forces them to if necessary. He’s tormented and prematurely old-looking and has a cool sword. This is the foundation for a fine adventure or paranormal mystery (or paranormal adventure mystery) comic that I would be telling you about regardless, but since it’s a Benito and Nate production, well…

Among the Halloween-themed pieces in this big fat comic are a retelling of Hector’s origin in a spot-on homage to Edward Gorey, a selection of holiday drink recipes and a mind-poppingly wonderful story entitled “Hector contre la Danse Macabre” which I cannot do justice to with my fumbling wordplay. It’s inspired by/kind of set to the song “Danse Macabre” as well as the companion poem, “Danse Macabre”. It’s one of my favourite things of all time, and curiously it involves NO PUNCHING OF MONSTERS AT ALL. Eerie. - JM


The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved

This warts-and-all look at the ongoing history of TV's longest-running (and arguably greatest) sitcom is a bit of a hatchet job. Matt Groening is portrayed as a guy who lucked into an empire, reaping tons of accolades and untold riches while contributing very little to the creative process; James L. Brooks is painted as a greedy, controlling miser on a par with Charles Montgomery Burns (a Season Two episode where Burns asked his employees for a life-saving blood transfusion, making it sound like they should be honoured and grateful for the privilege, was reportedly based on a similar request Brooks made to the show's staff); while Sam Simon is touted as the unsung genius who fine-tuned the series' look and sensibilities, only to leave the show in disgust over monetary disputes (none of the three agreed to be interviewed by for this book). However, as revealing as all this trash talk might be, this oral history (composed mostly of contributions from the show's legendary writing staff) is worth reading for the fascinating glimpses it provides into the fabled Simpsons writing room, particularly in the early seasons. The interviews with, and anecdotes about, Conan O'Brien are insightful and hilarious, while the detailed descriptions of how some of the show's funniest exchanges and gags developed are a delight. -DH

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's latest all-or-nothing genre homage may not have anything to do with comic books, but its outrageous re-writing of the final days of World War II reminded me of how Marvel and DC took their own liberties with the conflict. The two comic companies, as well as Hollywood's most notorious cinema nerd, made their peace early on with the idea that their vision of history is unabashedly fictional entertainment, not documentary, so why not tell it your own way? Marvel had the Human Torch roasting Hitler in his bunker, DC had the dictator using the mythical Spear of Destiny to keep the All-Star Squadron out of Europe, and Tarantino...well, if you haven't seen Basterds yet, I won't spoil it for you, but I will urge you to check out the DVD or Blu-Ray, available now. A canny fusion of spaghetti westerns, espionage thrillers, and Jewish revenge fantasy, one of Basterds' greatest achievements might be its ability to captivate a mass audience even though it's largely subtitled (much of the dialogue is spoken in French and German, with a little Italian thrown in for good measure). Who else but Tarantino can get cineplex audiences to sit through that much reading? Oh, and by the way--everything you've heard about Christoph Waltz's turn as the giddy, menacing Colonel Hans Landa is true. -DH

Honourable Mentions:

Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett (Harry N. Abrams First Editions) This mock textbook tells the history of Boilerplate, a robot soldier designed in 1893, who has fought in battles and played a key role in historic events for over a century. Imagine if Forrest Gump was a robot. Now stop imagining Forrest Gump, because its a terrible, stupid movie and Boilerplate is really, amazingly cool and exceptionally well executed.-TJ

Werewolves on the Moon vs Vampires by Dave Land and the Fillbach Brothers (Dark Horse) – Yes it’s a silly concept, but it was a very fun comic book, and I have to give it many props for actually being funny when it could have been terrible. Here’s hoping for that Werewolves on the Moon vs Mayan Moon Mummies sequel. - JM

Creepy by Various (Dark Horse) – Did you enjoy Creepy and the other black and white horror anthologies back in the day? Good news! This is pretty much a perfect resurrection! - JM

Underground by Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber (Image) – Technically this is a comic about people trying to kill each other in a cave, but really, it’s about people in a cave trying not to get killed. There’s a distinction there, I swear, and it makes this a wonderful read. - JM

Venture Bros (Cartoon) – Season 4 part one just finished and oh my god was it good. This is possibly the best cartoon ever. Plus: this season features Captain Sunshine, the first superhero-style character to make any sort of appearance. - JM

The Hellboy Universe (Dark Horse) – I won’t go on and on, as Mike Mignola’s family of comics has been excellent forever and will likely remain so. This year did continue their excellent track record of releases, with some months having a comic from one or another of the associated series come out every week. This years saw the fantastic B.P.R.D.: 1947, as the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense continues to come into its own in a post-WWII world, Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder, a look at an adventure of one of the most long-runningly enigmatic characters in the franchise, an Abe Sapien Quick Shot set in the Eighties and most importantly Hellboy: the Wild Hunt, which delivered a twist to the entire Hellboy story that I am still loathe to discuss. Seriously, if you enjoy Hellboy and don’t yet know what I’m talking about you owe it to yourself to read this series right now. So cool. - JM

Zorro by Matt Wagner and Francesco Francavilla (Dynamite)  Francavilla made a triumphant return to his art duties on Matt Wagner's excellent Zorro series this year. I don't know what else I can say about this series to make people read it. I have loved it since the beginning. It's awesome and the art is beautiful. - RG

Umbrella Academy: Dallas By Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba (Dark Horse) – So only half of it came out in 2009, so what. This stuff is fantastic. - JM