Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Some graphic novels for the geek in your life

So you know a geek and would like to buy them something. Speaking as a life-long geek, I understand that this can be a challenge. There is, in fact, so much cool geek stuff out there that it’s almost impossible to sort through. And you have to be careful. Getting Star Trek stuff for a My Little Pony geek isn’t really going to work out too well for you. A for effort, C for results.
I always tend to lean towards comic books. Big surprise. You can rarely go wrong with them. It’s a good story and pretty art in a nice little book. And most of them are reasonably priced, except for the ones that are not. And really, unless you really love them, you’re not buying them too many $100 books.
So here are a few of my suggestions for comics that you might want to buy this Christmas season. For the most part these are self-contained reading. I mean, Wolverine and the X-Men, Vol. 7 was a lovely book and all, but unless the person you’re buying for has the other six, it’s a bit of a wasted effort.
Book of the Year
East of West: Vol. 1 – The Promise
There’s no series I’ve gone back and reread more this year. I love Jonathan Hickman’s writing because it’s ambitious as hell, and he’s setting up for stuff that’s not going to pay off for a couple of years. But when it does, you can almost always guaranteed to be spectacular.
Put it this way, he recently completed a run on the Fantastic Four that I consider one of the five best in that series 50 year history. He had an inter-dimensional Council of Reed Richards, alien invasions from space and another dimension, Dr. Doom, battling space gods, time travel, a major death, and a dozen other things. And after two and a half years of this glorious madness, it was all build up to three pages of writing, so personal, human and beautifully written that I got misty. (Vol. 1 of the Omnibus of that Fantastic Four run is also now out, and well worth picking up, but it is expensive.)
All the first volume of East of West gives you as an alternate future on an Earth where the U.S. Civil War ended very differently, where three of the four horseman of the Apocalypse are on the ride and what the fourth horseman is up to is strange business indeed. It’s a sci-fi apocalyptic western. It’s also a love story. It also has some brutal, yet beautiful bits of writing (Death gets all the best lines). I have no earthly idea where Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta (doing career best work) are going with this, but I’m along for the ride. As long as I can have a horse like the one Death rides, because that is a pretty awesome horse.
For Women:
It sounds a touch derogatory to specifically list comics for women. But women geeks are starting to come into their own serious power in 2013. Here are some of their favourites, and ones that I’ve read.
Captain Marvel: Vol. 1 - In Pursuit of Flight
Captain Marvel: Vol. 2 - Down
Captain Marvel fans are a hardcore group. They’ve dubbed themselves the Carol Corps, you can buy t-shirts online, they make their own costumes and crafts, and they’re some of the most active tumblr users in comics. Writer Kelly Sue DeCormick is one of the most accessible, and kind, comic book writers on social media.
Honestly, the books shows more potential for awesome then consistently hitting it. When it’s on, it’s funny, inspirational and kick-ass. But just as often it can be frustrating. I think starting the series with a time travel story was a bit of a mistake. And the art has been maddeningly inconsistent. But still, it is beloved and I think Kelly Sue is really starting to find her groove. It’s a solid super hero comic on the verge of becoming something really good.
Young Avengers: Vol. 1 – Style < Substance
Teen super hero team books are an old comic book tradition. X-Men were the first, I believe. Teen Titans followed shortly afterwards. But the thing is, they haven’t always been written as teens. They felt like adults. I mean, I loved Teen Titans growing up, but they never acted like they were 18.
This title does. The opening scene features Kate Bishop (Hawkeye) waking up in bed after hooking up with a guy the night before. A guy with a space ship. Then they’re promptly attacked by Skrulls. It feels a lot more like being 18 years old, passionate and deeply stupid about stuff (I assume you weren’t attacked by Skrulls at 18, however). The make mistakes, but do their best. They are also not all white and straight, which is nice. Oh, and there is Loki. A little Loki. It makes him no less dangerous. This is also Tumblr’s favourite comic book. People on Tumblr adore this series.
Also, the art by Jamie McKelvie is spectacular. Aside from being lovely to look at, there’s also a lot of unique lay-out and design work happening. Years from now, people are going to be looking back on Young Avengers and copying what they did here.
The Adventures of Superhero Girl
Honestly, you can buy anything that Faith Erin Hicks does (Friends with Boys and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong are also worth picking up) and you’re in safe hands. She works out of Halifax and this is a fun series of strips featuring the adventures of Superhero Girl, as she tries to do right, keep a secret identity and put up with her insufferable, and much more popular, older hero brother. Delightful sounds condescending, but it’s a spot on accurate description of the book.
Bandette: Vol. 1 – Presto!
Anything Colleen Coover draws is pretty much is assured to end up on my buy list. I just love her art. It’s more cartoonish, but is filled with such energy and joy that makes it impossible to resist. Paul Tobin (who wrote the entertaining super-hero novel “Prepare to Die!”) helps out with the co-writing. The story is about a young woman who is both an art thief and someone who helps the police foil particularly nasty criminals. Well, her and her gang of street urchins.
Just a fun little piece of escapism. I’m not sure you’ll find a more joyful comic book this year.
Money to Burn
Uncanny X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 1
This is oh so pretty. It collects Uncanny X-Men from Giant-Size Annual #1 to #129 (about 37 issues). If you ever wonder how the X-Men, and Wolverine, got so popular, this is the book for you. From the slightly clunky relaunch and first year’s worth of issues (the series was bi-monthly to start with. Sales of 250,000 copies a month didn’t warrant a monthly. Most publishers today would murder their family for a series with those numbers today) the series hits full speed when Canadian artist/co-writer John Byrne comes aboard. Also, fun fact, fans loathed Wolverine on the team for years and begged writers to kill him off. Which goes to show you should not always listen to fans.
It’s expensive, but the stories still hold up, the art is gorgeous and it has been recoloured. Also, the original issues are a fortune. A great book for the X-Men/Wolverine fan in your life.
The Animal Man Omnibus
Originally this was going to be a four-issue mini-series. Animal Man was a joke character and DC wasn’t expecting much. Except Scottish writer Grant Morrison hit it out of the park. One of the definitive series of the late 80s/early 90s, Morrison rewrote his origins, added a logical animal rights angle to the story and, towards the end, so completely fucked around with the story telling that you were genuinely shocked and touched with what he pulled off in the last few issues.
It’s also worth mentioning that the classic “The Coyote Gospel” issue will change the way you look at Looney Tunes cartoons forever.
Sandman Omnibus, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Really, really not cheap. DC manages to find new ways to repackage Sandman every few years. This is the latest, with the complete series in two hefty volumes. Forests have been slaughtered writing about the greatness of Neil Gaiman’s series. It’s on any shortlist of the greatest comic books ever written.  These are beautiful looking, but heavy, books. I actually prefer to Absolute editions of the books, but they’re even more expensive to buy. Still, it’s a fantastic series and a classic.
Comics aren’t for kids anymore is the refrain that was popular in the mid-80s. So here are a few that are not quite for the kids.
Stumptown: Vol. 1 - The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini)
Stumptown: Vol. 2 - The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case
Greg Rucka remains one of my favourite writers. Along with Matthew Southworth and Rico Renzi on art, this is a great little pair of books set in Portland, Oregon featuring P.I. Dex Parios (Dex is the shortened version of her name. Her real name is one of the better jokes of the series). Dex, like any good P.I., is pretty deeply screwed up. Good heart and smart, but a real gift for getting in trouble and making bad decisions. The first book is a bit darker than the second, and honestly, I prefer Vol. 2., but they’re both clever and well written.
Also, a note about the hardcover design. These are seriously nice looking books, with lots of extras. Credit to Oni Press for putting together a really nice looking book at a very reasonable price.
It’s weird sounding title, and short for Romance at the Speed of Light. It’s also written and illustrated by Jeff Smith. And if that names sounds familiar, he produced the beloved classic kids comic Bone. This is about as far away from Bone as you can get and still be a comic. RASL, our hero, drinks, swears, tends to have sex with women he shouldn’t (prostitutes and his lab partner’s wife) and is an art thief.
It’s a big book, there’s a lot crammed in there (comic books writers love Tesla these days) and not all of it works (the art thief angle really doesn’t), but it’s beautiful and Smith is playing with a lot of stuff here, including inter-dimensional travel, the nature of God, identity, government conspiracies, and a host of other things. It’s ambitious and even if he doesn’t 100% land it, it’s a hell of a pleasure watching him try. This is also another beautifully packaged hardcover, by the way.
The Black Beetle: Vol. 1 – No Way Out
I have no idea how Francesco Francavilla can be so prolific and this damn good. It feels like his art was everywhere in 2013 and it was exploding with energy and vibrancy all over the place. I think the phrase “sickeningly talented” might apply here.
He also writes “No Way Out” and if you’re a fan of 30s/40s pulp heroes, this is your book. The Shadow and the Green Hornet also had series out this year. None of them came close to the fun of this book, as our hero fights Nazis trying to grab an occult object and solve the murder of some gangsters who got blown up just as he was about to bring them to justice. And again, give credit to Dark Horse for putting together a gorgeous, and reasonably priced, hardcover of this bit of pulp fun.
Fatale: Vol. 1 - Death Chases Me
Fatale: Vol. 2 - The Devil's Business
Fatale: Vol. 3 - West of Hell

Breaking the multiple volume rule for two reasons. First, no one in the business is better at putting out reasonable priced trade paperbacks to lure in new readers than Image Comics (these volumes can be bought at Amazon for $11.50 each). Secondly, when Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips put something out, you buy the damn thing no matter what.
This is Ed Brubaker playing with multiple genres. It’s noir. Deep, dark noir, so it’s not ending well for a lot of people. But it’s also a Lovecraftian horror story about a seemingly immortal woman who has the ability to get men to do anything she wants, rarely with good results, and the mysterious cult that chases her throughout most of the 20th century.
Brubaker and Phillips are hopscotching across the decades in a non-linear bit of storytelling that is so good you would think anyone could do this, but almost no one other than these two can do it so well and effortlessly.
Saga: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples put together the critical darling of the moment. This series is beloved and wins awards everywhere. Basically, two star-crossed lovers (literally) from warring galactic cultures fall in love and then, because neither one of them are particularly bright, manage to have a kid. This so infuriates both of their respective cultures that assassins are sent to remedy the situation.
This is a grotesquely simple description to a fun, sexy and touching series. Vaughn isn’t trying to sugar coat stuff here. The first issue got some blowback because it features a character breast feeding. There is sex. There is weird culture stuff happening. There is a Lying Cat, which can tell when you’re lying and says so loudly, which makes it the most beloved, and annoying, character in the series.
Vaughn and Staples are going balls to the wall crazy on this, but it’s fun stuff and worth the ride. And again, Image Comics makes the books ridiculously cheap, at $11.50 each.

Oh right, the stuff most people like. Well, um…
The Avengers: Endless Wartime
An original graphic novel from Marvel, written by Warren Ellis (my favourite writer) and illustrated by Mike McKone, this is the book for people who loved the movie, but we’re too daunted by the hundred million Avengers books out there right now to know where to start.
Basically, an old threat from Captain America and Thor’s past drives the rest of the team (Wolverine, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Iron Man, the Hulk) into action. The strength of the book is the easy way Ellis introduces each of the characters and how they interact with each other (everybody thinks Tony Stark is a dick and takes turns threatening him: "Tony, I could shoot you out of the air right now and all that would happen is I'd get a medal" - Captain Marvel). Everyone has a big moment, but the quiet moments of characters talking are the best ones.
It’s a solid little book, but a touch disappointing, if I’m honest. I don’t think Ellis landed the ending, which is rare. And McKone’s art is fine, but the action scenes never worked 100% for me. But it’s still a solid read and enjoyable.
Hawkeye: Vol. 1 - My Life as a Weapon
Hawkeye: Vol. 2 - Little Hits

I should mention you can also buy these two books in one, over-sized hardcover. This is Marvel’s critical darling book of the moment, with Matt Fraction and David Aja (and some guest artists), knocking it out of the park. I mean, it’s Hawkeye. He’s a guy that shoots arrows. How cool can this be?
Really cool. Extraordinarily cool. As the pitch goes, this is what he does when he’s not an Avenger. Which means he tends to get beaten up a lot, make a lot of mistakes, try his best, and sometimes come out ahead. There’s also Russian mobsters who say “bro” a lot, Kate Bishop, who is also Hawkeye, and Pizza Dog. Who is a dog that likes pizza. And sometimes solves murders.
It absolutely shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does. Aja’s spectacular art and creative layout certainly helps. But Hawkeye is such a loveable idiot in this book (bad habit of sleeping with the wrong women) you can’t help but to along with whatever stupid thing he’s doing now.
Batgirl: Vol. 1 - The Darkest Reflection
Batgirl: Vol. 2 - Knightfall Descends
Batgirl: Vol. 3 - Death of the Family
I was really prepared to hate this book, simply because I loved the previous Batgirl series by Brian Miller. And seriously, if you can find Miller’s run (it’s pretty much out of print), buy it. It’s one of the most entertaining series of the last 15 years.
But this is written by Gail Simone. And she managed the miraculous feat of bringing Barbara Gordon back as Batgirl, after she’s spent the last 20 years as the beloved, and wheel-chair bound, Oracle. A lot of fans hated this move, as positive role-models for disabled people are rare beasts in comics.
But Simone is doing some interesting things here. She’s taking advantage of a publisher wide revamp of the entire DC line. That revamp has been a massive failure, in my opinion, with a few exceptions. Here is one of them. For one thing, Gordon is dealing with PTSD, which means she’s got a lot of rage issues and doesn’t always do the smart thing. Simone is also looking at mental illness, in particular with some of the villains. There are other tweaks as well. Batgirl doesn’t feel comfortable going after poor people doing bad things to try survive like robbing from the rich. And there’s a nice, diverse supporting cast.
I miss Miller’s Batgirl a lot, but if you had to replace it with something, this is as good as you’re going to get.
Batman: Vol. 1 - The Court of Owls
Batman: Vol. 2 - The City of Owls
Batman: Vol. 3 - Death of the Family

Lord knows that DC is flogging the Bat titles to death. I think there are about a dozen Bat related titles right now. But along with Batgirl, this is the cream of the crop. Writer Scott Snyder is DC's go to guy for writing these days, and artist Greg Capullo is doing career best work. The first two books are one big story arc and the rare attempt at going back through Batman's origins that really quite works. A sinister, secret organization that has laid in the heart of Gotham for more than a century, that has intimate ties with the Wayne family. It's a nice place on owls and bats, a good new set of villains for Batman. He's a character that's as much defined by his foes as himself, so a new, high calibre villains is no easy trick.

As for Death of the Family, it's Snyder's attempt at the ultimate Joker/Batman story. It has its moments, and introduces a very weird new dynamic between the two. I think he wrote himself into a corner for the ending (he simply couldn't do what he wanted to do, because it would have damaged too many of DC's characters), but it's one of the scarier Joker stories I can recall.
Star Wars: Vol. 1 – In the Shadow of Yavin
I’ve never bothered with Star Wars comics too much, because publisher Dark Horse cranks out so many that it’s impossible to keep up with it. This book, however, has several things going for it. Brian Wood is a top notch, if controversial, writer (accusations of bad behavior towards women at cons). I’ve been hit and miss on his work before, but this is a solid hit. The series takes place shortly after the events of “A New Hope”. The rebels are on the run and trying to find a new base, but the Empire is right on top of them. It’s up to Princess Leia to try and save the rebellion, which is hanging on by a thread.
Seriously, this book is great because of Leia. She’s barely recovering from losing Alderann and being tortured, dealing with spies, a pouty Luke Skywalker and trying to keep the rebellion together. But through all of it, she’s kick-ass tough and smart. I’ve never read or seen a better portrayal of Leia.

And yes, Vader is in it, smarting from losing the Death Star and looking to get some revenge. Han and Chewie are there too, proving that they're the worst smugglers in the galaxy.
Oh yes, and the art is great. Trying to draw actors in comics has a long history of failure. They often look either very stiff or not like the actors. Carlos D'anda manages to pull off the rare trick of it looking natural, but also with a nice gift for the big action sequences.

Conan: Vol. 13 - Queen of the Black Coast

Again, breaking a rule, but you can easily skip the previous 12 volumes and not be confused. A young Conan makes his way to a boat with the local police hot on his trail. Shortly afterwards there are pirates and tales of high adventure. Oh, and a pirate queen not to be messed with.

Conan is way hit and miss with me, and more often miss. A little goes a long way. But with writer Brian Wood (him again) and art by the amazingBecky Cloonan and quite good James Harren, this is a fun little tale.

Molly Danger: Book 1

An early Kickstarter success story, this is for people who missed out on getting the book through the original fundraising effort. Written and illustrated by Jamal Igle it features the adventures of Molly Danger, a 12-year-old girl with super powers. Except she's been 12 for several decades now, has an origin that sounds decidedly suspicious and a support team to help her with adventures, but doesn't seem to do much to actually make her happy.

If it sounds like a downer, well, a bit of one. But it's a super hero book aimed at kids (there's a rarity) and Igle is setting up a lot of stuff in this volume for future ones. But it's beautifully drawn and the book itself was quite the surprise when it arrived. It's an over-sized book, which shows off the artwork quite nicely. I'm eagerly awaiting Book 2.

Well, that went on longer than I thought, but hopefully there's a few suggestions there that are useful. Enjoy your comics...

Last Five
1. I can't wait to get off work (and see my baby on Montgomery Avenue) - Tom Waits
2. The guitar - They Might Be Giants
3. Like a star - Corinne Bailey Rae*
4. Salute your solution - The Racounteurs
5. Keepsake - The Gaslight Anthem


John, Canberra AU said...

Yeah, Morrison's "Animal Man" run was a game changer, especially the Gospel according to Crafty. But his Doom Patrol really should be in your list as well. "Why is there something instead of nothing?" "The great, long, red-legged scissorman." Not to forget "THIS!" It's way up there with Sandman in my book.

towniebastard said...

Doom Patrol will likely be on next year's list. They're coming out with an omnibus next August. Expensive bugger, and huge (1200 pages). But I loved that series when it came out, even if Morrison started to lose it a bit towards the end.