Me gusta los libros cómicos

Animal FarmI thought I had more to say about comic books, but once you get past the fact that I’m 35 years old and I still read them, there’s not a whole lot more left to say.

I’ve gotten several collections recently that I’ve enjoyed the hell out of, so they go into the list of

Best Comic Book Collections

1. Batman: Year One by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli
I don’t like any other thing that Frank Miller has ever done, but this is my favorite comic book. Go figure.

2. Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom by Mike Mignola
There’s only so many different ways I can say that Mike Mignola is a genius. He’s such a brilliant artist, that it’s almost unfair his stories are so good. I’ll admit that 90% of the time, I can’t even figure out exactly what’s going on in a Hellboy story, and it doesn’t matter — he gets the mood, the pacing, the congolomeration of folklore and mythology, and the snatches of dialogue so dead-on perfect. B.P.R.D. is a lot better at plotting, which in a way is to its detriment — the stories just feel “smaller” somehow. The Right Hand of Doom gets my vote just because it has the story Box Full of Evil.

3. Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon
When Garth Ennis took over the book, he completely made it his own, and this is one of the best stories ever, comics or otherwise. Plus there are plenty of Pogues references. John Constantine makes a deal with the devil to cure his own lung cancer, with a genius twist at the end.

4. The Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones, Matt Wagner, and others
What happens when Lucifer abandons Hell. This was the storyline that got me back into the series after I’d given up on it.

5. The Collected Sam and Max: Surfin’ the Highway by Steve Purcell
Steve Purcell is my hero.

6. Fables: Animal Farm by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha
This series is about storybook fables (Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, etc) living in exile in the “real” (they call it “mundy”) world. From what I’ve seen, it’s the best ongoing comic running. It took me a while to get into it, because the first collection is a pretty weak attempt at a mystery story set on top of an engaging premise. It takes off with the second storyline, though, and it’s completely engrossing. It’s funny, shocking, scary, violent, sad, and surprisingly fast-paced.

Willingham could’ve taken the easy way out, and just had characters like Goldilocks and Snow White having sex and shooting guns and tried to ride through on “edgy” street cred. And there is plenty of that, but it always takes it a step further, and builds a really engaging and surprising story on top of a predictable concept. Plus, Buckingham’s art is just perfect for the story. The biggest fault I have with it, and it’s kind of a nitpick, is that the characters suffer from Kevin Smith Syndrome, in which all people, no matter their age, sex, education, intelligence, history, or background, all speak like chubby white college-educated pop culture junkies in their early 30s.

7. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa
A ridiculously exhaustive tribute to Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck comics, this book traces the life of the character based on small, off-hand references throughout the earlier stories. And it may be sacrilege to say it, but I enjoyed it even more than Barks’ stories. (And I think Barks’ stories are fantastic, which tells you how much I liked this book). It just amazes me to see someone putting so much care and detail into something that relies so heavily on such corny jokes.

8. DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
The story really doesn’t do all that much for me. But the art kicks so much ass, you can’t help but like it. The premise is all of DC’s Justice League heroes recast in the 50s Cold War era.

9. Mage: The Hero Discovered by Matt Wagner with Sam Kieth
An 80s “urban” retelling of the King Arthur story. It seems a little juvenile and dated now, but at the time I first read it, it was astounding.

10. Essential Fantastic Four: Volume 3 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
I was never a fan of Marvel, so all I knew about their comics and characters were from cartoons, and the bits that rub off just by nature of being a comic book fan. It’s always just been understood that Jack Kirby was one of the greatest comic artists there was, so I accepted that without ever really being sure why. When you look at these issues, you can totally see why. He’s got the cosmic power dots, and the 50’s-era white guys with overbites, and the chicks with swingin’ bobs, and the crazy space helmets, and the Silver Surfer and Galactus. Just like you can’t appreciate a movie just by looking at stills, you can’t appreciate Kirby drawings without seeing them in the context of the whole story. I can’t explain it; it just is. And also, as pandering, sexist, and shameless as the writing of these comics are, you can’t deny that they’re just plain fun. I feel like I understand for the first time why Fantastic Four was such a big deal.

Honorable mention goes to Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker, which would’ve been forced me to drop something from 1-10, but I can get away with it because it’s a “graphic novel,” not a collection. The real number 11 would’ve gone to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume 2.

I didn’t include Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, on purpose. The Dark Knight Returns, I’ve never liked, at all. And Watchmen is a great comic like Citizen Kane is a great movie — sure, I can look at it and see how meticulously set-up everything is, and how it’s full of allusions and references and literary influences, and how the design of it all some perfect construct. But I don’t like reading it at all. It’s clever, but doesn’t feel at all real to me. The plot, especially the resolution, is kind of weak.

Now, the most fun comics collections I’ve read recently are DC Showcase Presents: Teen Titans and DC Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups, both by Bob Haney. You’ll see lots of things describing his writing as being “wacky” or “over-the-top;” better descriptions would be “batshit crazy” and “shamelessly pandering.” And it’s all awesome. You can tell with Fantastic Four that Stan Lee was having a lot of goofy fun with comics, but Haney just takes it to the next level. When you’ve got some free time, do a blog search for Bob Haney and read about some of his master works. It’s really what the silver age of comics is all about.