The Jackson Ten: 2005's Most Totally Awesome Graphic Novels
Around this time of year, the only thing more cliché than a holiday special is a "Best of the Year" list, and considering that I've ran the former reindeer right into the ground, I thought I'd try my hand at the latter.
Yes, it's time for the first annual ISB Dave Jackson Awards for outstanding achievement in the field of graphic novel total awesomeness. Tonight, ten of this year's graphic novels will be honored in the name of 1984's expert gamesman, whose appearance in DC Comics Presents #67 has inspired us all.
I mean, check him out. Those shades, that spiked collar, and an endorsement of the Q*Bert Board Game. The guy knows what he's talking about.
Me, however, I'm a little more suspect. So while these are the ten trade paperbacks that stick out in my mind, it's by no means a comprehensive list of all the good stuff that came out last year--and I'm not even sure that all of it did come out last year. So if you're using this as a guideline for some last-minute shopping for the person on your list who enjoys awesome things, don't let the fact that they're not on the list stop you from bying something like We3, Aaron Renier's Spiral-Bound: Top Secret Summer, Demo, or any of the Owly books. These, though... these are the books that stuck with me the most over the past year. And unfortunately, a lot of good trades out there I bought as single issues, so it didn't even occur to me to put, say, Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days on the list even though it's a great read.
So, now that I've completely shot my credibility, let's get right to it.
Starting things off at #10 is Kaz Kibuishi's Daisy Kutter: The Last Train (Viper Comics), which is not only one of my favorite comics of the year, but also one of my favorite westerns period, regardless of media. The book's absolutely gorgeous, from the slick packaging of the trade paperback to Kibuishi's amazing art.
The story, of course, centers on Daisy Kutter, a former outlaw and war hero who has settled down to the boring life of a shopkeep in a Western-style world populated by humans and robots that's highly reminiscent of the best parts of Trigun. One bad hand of poker later, she's on her way to rob one last train--as a favor to its owner, no less--and things just go downhill from there. It may sound a little thin, but Kibuishi fills it out wonderfully with lush art and great interplay between Daisy and Tom the Sheriff, along with a lot of intriguing references to Daisy's past.
On my copy of the trade, there's a small number 1 on the bottom of the spine, which I can only hope means we'll be getting more stuff like this:
#9: Invincible: The Ultimate Collection / #8: Runaways v.1
These two are pretty similar in format and appeal, so I figured I'd lump them together for ease of comparison. Invincible: The Ultimate Collection (by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, Ryan Ottley, and Bill Crabtree) and Runaways v.1 (by Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and a bunch of other talented folks) are both oversized "deluxe edition" hardcovers with a ton of bonus material, and they're also both Totally Awesome. Invincible, which touts itself pretty accurately as "Probably the Best Super-Hero Comic in the Universe," is what Ultimate Spider-Man should be. It's Robert Kirkman's best work so far, telling the story of Mark Grayson, the son of the world's greatest super-hero, whose own superpowers finally kick in during high school. It has everything you could possibly want in a super-hero comic, with fun action, to intense drama, an entire universe of supporting characters, and even one of the best recurring gags in comics. Walker's style and character designs are great, and a wonderful fit for Kirkman's script, and Ottley's are sharp, but compliment the earlier designs and only build on them.
Runaways, on the other hand, tackles teen super-heroics from another side, and not only sets the story in the rarely-seen West Coast of the Marvel Universe, but goes so far as to give a reason why you don't see much of it. Vaughan's comics are always fun to read--which is probably why Marvel used the script for Runaways #1 as an example of what they wanted in the submission guidelines for their short-lived Epic line. There's even a throwaway line about The Prisoner in the first issue that, when I finally finished watching the show, made the whole first series even better. The art, though, is downright amazing, especially on the oversized pages of the hardcover. By the end of the book, Alphona's pencils with Craig Yeung's inks and the coloring of Christina Strain and Brian Reber are just gorgeous.
The content, then, is well spoken-for. But it's the packaging that puts these onto the list. Kevin and I have had the discussion about the way the trade paperback market works, and he cites Runaways specifically as an example of how its done right: they allowed the book to build a fan-following through issues, then digest-size trades at a price point less than ten bucks, then finally put out a great hardcover. Now while that does lead to certain people, like me, buying the same story three times, it also allows new readers to jump on in a variety of ways, and keeps the trades cheap while having the nicer presentation of the hardcover once you realize you like it, and the way Image marketed Invincible works about the same way.
So why does Runaways slip into the higher spot? Well, it's four cents more expensive than Invincible, and has eighteen issues to Invincible's thirteen. Not a bad deal either way, but it's enough to get them sorted.
I'm not the first person to talk about how Corey Sutherland Lewis the Rey's Sharknife is awesome, and I'm pretty sure I won't be the last, so I won't waste your time. I will, however, say this: Every good thing you've heard about this book is true.
It's a masterpiece, from the literal love letter to comics at the beginning to the story of the villain's life as told through his suits, to the cookie fortunes Sharknife says when he transforms. It's probably why the word "kickass" was invented.
Plus, in the Free Comic Book Day Special--which I hope gets collected for you poor souls who missed it--we find out that Sharknife fought a bear. And if there's one thing I've grown to love in 2005... it's bearfightin'.
And while we're on the subject of love letters to comics, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better one than Don Rosa's amazing tribute to Carl Barks. In this twelve-part story, Rosa pulls together every single story, comment, and throwaway line about Scrooge McDuck's past and ties it all together, all while explaining how he went from a wide-eyed scrapper on the streets of Glasgow struggling for every dime he could get to the bitter, miserly Uncle Scrooge of his first appearance, dragging him down so that we can understand how much Donald and his nephews redeemed the rich old duck. There's so much beautiful storytelling in it, including my personal favorite moment in Chapter Eight, where Yukon claim-jumpers push Scrooge one step too far and feel the wrath of his heretofore unknown super-strength.
The best part, though, comes in Rosa's commentary at the end of each chapter, explaining the bits and pieces that he culled from not only Barks's stories, but the man's notes on the nature of the Ducks and their world. It's fascinating stuff, and it'll make you want to read more, which is exactly what a good comic does.
In case my incredibly longwinded review of the two hardcovers at 8 and 9 didn't tip you off, I like trades that deliver a lot of content for the money. And with almost sixty issues for forty bucks, this omnibus edition of Jeff Smith's Bone delivers nicely indeed.
Of course, it doesn't hurt matters much that the story's pretty incredible, starting off almost like a gag strip before turning into a fantasy adventure, and yet never losing a bit of its charm along the way. Anything else I could say about it would sound like hyperbole, but it really is that good: Clean, smooth art, engrossing storylines, loveable heroes and genuinely terrifying villains, and an old woman racing against a herd of cows. It's not only a book that I think should be on every comic fan's bookshelf, but on everyone's bookshelf, adults and kids alike.
The premise of Rich Koslowski's The King sounds crazy: A mystery about the seeming resurrection of Elvis Presley--or in this case, a man called the Second Coming of Elvis, who, known only as the King, rules the Las Vegas strip and sports a golden helmet that hides his true face. And it's up to Paul Erfurt, a washed-up former tabloid reporter to find the truth.
But through it all, as Erfurt sorts through his own issues, Koslowski tells a story of fame, religion, music, faith, and redemption. Like so many good comics, it's hard to describe without making it sound bad, but it's one of my favorite stories ever. And while the $20 price tag is a bit hefty for a book only slightly bigger than digest-size, it's worth every penny.
Much like the Sharknife situation, the last thing anyone with an internet connection needs is another comics blogger telling them how great Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim is. But really, it's one of those comics that just won't stop being awesome. The first volume tricks you into thinking it's going to be your standard quirky romance, but most love triangles floating around these days don't involve musical kung-fu battles with one of the girls' Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends, and that's a shame that needed to be rectified immediately.
And Volume 2's even better. Seriously, when you can start a comic with a River City Ransom joke, you are awesome forever and that is a fact.
So what, you may be asking yourself, could possibly top the Scott Pilgrim books as the single most Totally Awesome trade paperback of 2005?
Well there's this guy.
You might've heard of him.
It's not just that there's nothing wrong with this book, it's that everything's so right. Every problem that you could have with Marvel's Essential line is fixed in the DC Showcases, from better paper stock to the beautiful cover design of the books themselves. And this volume of Silver-Age Superman adventures stands out even among the Showcases: Curt Swan's pencils look great in black and white, most of the stories are like some kind of mad genius, and since this was the first of the line, it's ten bucks, a price that would make it absolutely unbeatable even without the added value of panels like this:
I've talked about that particular story here on the ISB before, which is no surprise since I was obsessed with how awesome this trade was for weeks. It's got it all, True Believer, from the first appearance of Supergirl to the story that inspired Grant Morrison to write All-Star Superman--a tale wherein Superman not only loses his powers, but gains the ability to shoot a miniature version of himself out of his hand, at which time he does everything he can to kill it.
And if that isn't convincing enough, then allow me to kick some science to you:
It's a fact.