Welcome to the Crave Online "Best In Comics" Awards for 2011, where myself and Iann Robinson, stalwart co-hosts of your mostly-weekly Book Report comic book podcast, will be selecting the winners in various categories honoring the highest achievement a comic professional can hope for - making us happy. Rather than engage in the futile exercise of trying to get Iann and I to come to a consensus (you try changing his mind!), we'll just both offer our selections and name them co-winners. When we both actually agree, you'll know it's an achievement.
This was a big year, full of upheaval and such, especially with DC's unprecedented New 52 initiative, which completely restarted the entire DC universe, complete with new histories mixing with old classics. So we'll start right there for our first category.
BEST CHARACTER REBOOT
Iann Robinson: This was a close race between Swamp Thing and Animal Man, but in the end it came down to how extensive the new direction was. Where Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing is a massive expansion on the character, Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man is almost a total reinvention. Lemire introduces Animal Man’s family as a major player in the story, especially his youngest daughter, the avatar for the realm of the undead. A war is coming between dark elements and those of nature and Animal Man is caught in the middle. The story is really disturbing and genuinely scary. Then there’s the art from Travel Foreman, which is brilliant. Want to know how good? Just read my Best Artist of the Year.
Andy Hunsaker: I was tempted to go with Daredevil, considering the drastic change in tone there, but it technically wasn't a reboot, as Mark Waid didn't wipe any continuity away. As Iann noted, factoring in just how much change was made in these characters in the New 52 was important - most of the best titles are ones featuring characters who didn't change much at all, and the jury's still out on a lot of the more radical alterations like Superman and Batgirl. So I'm going with Aquaman, because Geoff Johns approached this book just like he was supposed to - hitting all the criticisms that the general public has for Arthur Curry and knocking them down one by one. There have been changes to his past, but we haven't really seen much of them yet, so maybe that's why this title is still clicking (and sadly, it's the only one of Johns' three New 52 books that is), but it's entertaining and hopefully it's bringing some new eyes and new perspectives to the undersea badass.
BEST NEW CHARACTER
THOMAS WAYNE: BATMAN
Iann Robinson: For me, this was a simple choice because the Thomas Wayne Batman from Flashpoint was the only character that I wanted to see more of. The story of Batman: Knight Of Vengeance was a great read and it opened up an entire new reality that peaked my interest completely. I really want an Elseworlds ongoing series that shows the harshness of Batman’s life in this reality. With Brain Azzarello on point, the series could be a stunning combination of 100 Bullets and The Dark Knight Returns. The fact that this is the only new character that even held my interest during Flashpoint put Thomas Wayne’s Batman on the top of my list of Best New Characters.
Andy Hunsaker: Yes, okay, she sort of looks naked. That's not in the criteria, though (and she's covered in technomorphic alloy stuff, so nyah). The former Dr. Kurinji is one of the slew of new non-traditional characters Jeff Parker has created in the pages of his Red Hulk series to give the new-look T-Bolt Ross his own rogues gallery, and she happens to be the most compelling. A post-human hybrid of technology and humanity caught between the two and trying to rationalize her way towards progress, she managed to reason her way out of her enmity with Ross due to his hand in her traumatic creation. She's on the tipping point between amoral mad-science visionary and amoral mad-science visionary with a comprehension of human value, and if she falls the wrong way, it's ugly-time for everybody. Watching her walk inquisitively along that line has been interesting and has created an ominous tension in anticipation of what happens if she goes full-on genocidal out of cold efficiency. So odd is her psyche that she went and found a serial killer that terrified her in her youth and refurbished him into the Black Fog, her right-hand warrior. She even mind-melded with M.O.D.O.K. and gave him a crush on her... and M.O.D.O.K. has always been the key to my heart.
BEST EVENT SERIES
Iann Robinson: While everybody else at Marvel was focused on making the universe a suicidally depressing place to be, writer Dan Slott decided to remind us how much fun comic books can be. How did he do that? With the best event to go down in 2011. Spider Island was fun, exciting, emotional and most importantly a good damn time. At first, I felt the idea of everybody in Manhattan getting spider powers was fraught with peril, but Slott proved me wrong. His crisp pacing and talent for dialog made each issue a dream to read. When you thought it would be too serious, Slott injected fun, when the excitement was at a high pace, Slott brought in some melancholy aspects. Using the idea of quiet/loud/quiet, Spider Island was the Pixies of the comic book world this year.
Andy Hunsaker: Agreed. Slott showed the rest of the industry how this kind of thing should be done. Keep it quick, keep it tight, have the crossovers make sense and the tie-ins seem relevant, and don't hammer it into our faces until we're sick of it three months before it ends. And J. Jonah Jameson with spider-powers.
Iann Robinson: I’m not a big fan of the whole Batman Inc. idea and Batwing writer Judd Winick’s reboot of Catwoman was offensively bad. Add to that my dislike for Winick’s constant Jason Todd usage and my expectations for Batwing were low. To my surprise, the series was a wonderfully written, an exciting and bold adventure. Batwing’s backstory is compelling and his current battle to stop the villain Massacre is disturbingly violent. From where my expectations began to where they are now, Batwing is easily one of my biggest surprises of 2011.
TRANSFORMERS: PRELUDE TO CHAOS
Andy Hunsaker: Longtime Transformers fans have gotten used to the notion that top-flight writers generally don't gravitate to the Robots In Disguise. The painfully stupid movies are evidence of that. We've had enough pretty good writers to keep things interesting, but it's such a huge cast of characters with the 'toy' stigma requiring either a huge investment of time for research or a lifetime of fandom since the 1980s to really handle, it's a tall order. James Roberts, however, seems primed and ready to change all of that. Gearing up for IDW's big Chaos event, Roberts dropped this two-part flashback to the beginnings of the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons and brought a wonderful amount of depth and intrigue to the storied history of Cybertronian society. Namely, the stunning twist that most of the Autobots' principles were based on the writings of Megatron before he was turned into an engine of conquest and rage by a corrupt government. It was a fantastic revelation written extremely well, with perfect art from Alex Milne. Sadly, the Chaos story itself was a bit of a mess, but Roberts once again proved he's got the stuff with his Death of Optimus Prime one-shot, and he's set to captain his own Transformers title to delve even deeper into the archives of Cybertron. It's an exciting time for robot fans.
Iann Robinson: This was a tight race between Jock and Travel Foreman but the twisted, acid trip insanity of what Foreman does had to win out. Foreman’s work is mesmerizing. His ability with lines and panel layouts keep a cinematic pace for Animal Man and his drawings are disturbing and bizarre. Everything he does feels like being on powerful drugs, a real achievement when you’re sober and reading a comic book. Travel Foreman makes an artistic statement with every issue of Animal Man and his art is inseparable from the story. Fucked up human forms, horrific creatures, dark and evil images surrounding the innocence of children? I often ask myself just how fucked is Foreman really? To be honest I don’t care, not as long as he keeps giving us inspiring art like this.
J.H. WILLIAMS III
Andy Hunsaker: Just look at this layout. Creative, beautiful, breathtaking. And this is the kind of thing that fills every issue of Batwoman. This art alone is reason enough to pick up this book, but Williams is also co-writing an intriguing story to go along with this imaginative stuff he's doing. It's not often these days that you can flip through the pages of a comic book and let out an audible 'wow,' but WIlliams manages it with a highly impressive regularity.
Iann Robinson: Everything the man touches (Batman, Swamp Thing, etc.) has been amazing. Based on how his work has expanded the DC Universe, Snyder will end up in the same arena as Alan Moore, Denis O’Neal, Frank Miller, John Byrne, Len Wein and all the greats that changed the game. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, comes close to Scott Snyder in comic books today. You don’t agree, you’re wrong. Dialog? Check. Story? Check. Pacing? Check. Creative ideas always flowing? Check. Snyder can do anything from gritty to fantastical to downright disturbing. Every other writer in comics today can’t even carry Snyder’s luggage. Yep, he’s that damn good.
Andy Hunsaker: Nothing against Mr. Snyder, who is doing absolutely great work, but my nod has to go to Mr. Slott. He never misses a beat on Marvel's flagship character Spider-Man with a book that comes out twice a month. Balancing a huge cast of fantastic characters, expectations from both sides of the One More Day divide, and a fantastic cavalcade of guest-stars from the FF to the AA*, he's shown a tremendous sense of pacing, a deep love of these characters and an amazing ability to deftly dance through the entire emotional spectrum without ever letting his fists get hammy. Plus, as previously stated, he showed the entire industry how to do an event book this year. I'm sure Slott could at least load Snyder's luggage onto a cart and push it into the elevator. Plus, he'd look dandy in a bellhop's hat.
*Future Foundation to the Avengers Academy, so's ya knowz.
BATMAN: KNIGHT OF VENGEANCE
Iann Robinson: As far as I’m concerned, the Batman: Knight Of Vengeance story is the only decent thing that came out of Flashpoint. The other stories tried too hard to “shake things up,” while Knight Of Vengeance, penned by Brian Azzarello, actually took a creative twist on the Batman story. Many, including my esteemed editor, had beef with the Joker being Martha Wayne, but for me that was a bit of mad genius. The complete horror of this alternate Batman’s life made his decisions in Flashpoint logical. A killer tale caught in the storm of a stupid event.
PENGUIN: PAIN AND PREJUDICE
Andy Hunsaker: This one could come back and bite me in the ass, as the series is not even finished yet, and there were some great contenders this year, like Mystery Men and Fear Itself: Spider-Man. But Gregg Hurwitz and Szymon Kudranski have done such a stellar job crafting an incredibly somber, lonesome mood for the new origin of Oswald Cobblepot that it's hard to fathom that the last two issues could somehow negate the greatness of the first three. It's cinematic in its despair, carefully illustrating the house of cards the Penguin's ruthless criminal empire is founded upon - the cultivation of respect through fear, and the deep-seated need for revenge against any who would dare deny him that respect. Sad to say, he's the only Batvillain who got any kind of respect at all in the New 52, oddly making the most Rodney Dangerfield-esque of them into the anti-Rodney. It is, indeed, a new DCU.
And yes, Martha Wayne as the Joker was too much.
BEST SINGLE ISSUE
DETECTIVE COMICS #880
Iann Robinson: Not only is this the best cover in comics of the entire year, but the final push of Scott Snyder’s story about Commissioner Gordon’s son James was explosive and dramatic, a true worthy send off for Detective Comics before the big New 52 switch up. Snyder’s story arc wasn’t perfect but it was as close as Detective Comics has been in years. Issue #880 brought a new slant to the entire idea of who the Gordon family is and how they relate to the Batman Universe. In one fell swoop, Snyder made us remember why we love Commissioner Gordon and Barbara and how important they really are to the entire Dark Knight makeup. Issue #880 was the pinnacle of this genius.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #672
Andy Hunsaker: I'm heaping a lot of praise on Dan Slott, and he deserves it all. The question must again be asked - when was the last time any big event book actually had a satisfying ending? Before this issue's resolution of Spider Island, I couldn't tell you when. Now we know exactly when - Amazing Spider-Man #672, co-starring the lively and kinetic artwork of the tireless Humberto Ramos. Not only is it a crowd-pleaser, but it also takes its own satirical digs at the modern event book in the process of giving Peter Parker a cathartic triumph after a rough year - and hints of what potential there is for Mary Jane Watson to find her way back into the picture. It's exciting, it's smart, it's quick, it's energetic and it runs the emotional gamut. Most of all, it's funny, something we've yet to really see in any Spider-Man movie to date (and that trend is likely to continue with 2012's Twilight-looking Amazing Spider-Man film). It's just a perfect issue giving us everything we love about comics.
BEST NEW 52 TITLE
Iann Robinson: Again, I step into the court of Scott Snyder with Swamp Thing. This is a character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson and then perfected by Alan Moore. The size of the sack needed to step into the ring with those men and put your own level on the history is huge. Well, sack up, because Snyder has done exactly that. Swamp Thing is now a bigger story, a more eternal figure that floats in the arena of being a God. The return of Alec Holland is a stroke of genius that Scott Snyder has handled flawlessly. Swamp Thing isn’t just riding on the coattails of the former scribes. Instead, it pays the respect due to the source material and then pushes the boundaries of that material into all kinds of new directions. Swamp Thing is one of the only things in the new 52 that can really be called creative.
Andy Hunsaker: J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman have managed, through sheer tyranny of will and brilliance of artwork, make me a fan of Kate Kane, a character I had no interest in prior to picking up Batwoman #1 in the wave of the New 52. In fact, after first reading about her in that iffy 52 series a few years back, I was actually disinclined to take any interest in her. That's all changed now, with these beautifully rendered comic books that achieve a fine art status through visuals alone, merged with a darkly compelling story about a damaged superhero, the loss of her family and a strange spectral serial killer she seems powerless to stop. Featuring strong lesbian characters who are mined for emotional trauma rather than exploitative titillation, this is the best thing going in the New 52 - possibly because it doesn't seem like anything at all has been rebooted, possibly because it had the longest lead time going into the whole initiative and was delayed constantly so it could coincide with it. Whatever the reason, Batwoman is brilliant. Plus, it sports Mr. Bones, who makes everything better.
BEST ONGOING SERIES
Iann Robinson: Unlike the other New 52 stories that try too hard to reinvent the wheel, Scott Snyder’s Batman is more focused on expanding the legend of the Dark Knight. At the risk of sounding indelicate, you can’t fuck with it. Explosive action, top notch writing and a story that does more for the Dark Knight’s legend than any other since Year One. Of all the big characters in the DC Universe, the Bat titles have been the only ones that are consistently laced with awesomeness (except Dark Knight and Detective). The tiptop of that is Batman. This is the best ongoing series bar none.
Andy Hunsaker: I'm running out of superlatives for the work Dan Slott, Humberto Ramos and the rest of the artists on this series have been doing. It's just top-notch funnybook entertainment, rooted in love for the medium, the characters and the ability to stretch the limits of one's imagination. Comedy, drama, adventure, pathos, love, hate, despair, deliciousness - it's all here. The consistency of this book, especially with its twice-monthly schedule and breakneck pace, is highly impressive and somewhat astounding. One just can't say enough good things about this crew. And 2012 is going to be full-on Sinister Six stuff! Which means it's gonna get even better! Hot damn!
CHARACTER OF THE YEAR
JAMES BUCHANAN "BUCKY" BARNES
Iann Robinson: I’m sure there are many who disagree with this choice, and I get that. This year had a lot of breakouts but, for me, what Ed Brubaker has done with Bucky Barnes is the biggest leap of any. Barnes has always been a second tier character, a super buddy to Captain America that almost seemed dated in the modern world. Seriously, did anybody have the same emotional investment with Barnes at the start of 2011 as they do now? Brubaker was so smart to keep Barnes’ story a slow boil. He never rushed in and become a focal point, his time as Captain America was tenuous and filled with self-doubt. Brubaker made Bucky Barnes human first. Once we cared about him, Brubaker explored his backstory and created a compelling new history. By the end of 2011 Bucky Barnes had gone from a peripheral character to one with an upcoming series people are waiting for with bated breath. To me, that makes him the character of the year.
Andy Hunsaker: I know, I know, shut up about how much you like Spider-Man already. But this has been a huge year for Peter Parker - a guy who tends to have pretty big years every year. Not only is he set up in his dream job at Horizon Labs, a workplace chock full of awesome potential that really serves his Spider-life well, but he got to join the FF and swing around in some slick new togs in Jonathan Hickman's Future Foundation. True, he had to lose one of his best friends in Johnny Storm to do it, but hey, he got him right back at the end of the year. He lost his spider-sense for a while, but picked up kung fu in the meantime! He had the best event book of the year in Spider Island, and even in that other Marvel event, Fear Itself: Spider-Man was the absolute best thing about it, thanks to Chris Yost. He even had a kickass second book by Zeb Wells introduced toward the end of the year with Avenging Spider-Man. He lost his cool, nerdy CSI roller derby girlfriend over trust issues, but gained another confidant and partner on the inside of the police force who even got a drunken Spidey tattoo to remind her that she broke up with a super-hero. He managed to get his evil spider-clone Kaine healed and on the path towards being more of a goodnik, even if the guy swiped one of his two fancy new high-tech spider-suits. He had a huge tragedy this year, as New York's First Lady Marla Jameson fell victim to a Spider-Slayer attack that he couldn't stop, but he found a way through his never-ending guilt and managed to save the entire city from being turned into spider monsters. He even got the key to the city!
He's had a hell of a 2011, and Dan Slott gets the shiny golden god award for giving it to him.
That's a wrap! Don't let the music hit you on the ass as it plays you off stage. Happy new year!