David's 2009: This Has Nothing To Do With The Zeitgeist

This current trending topic, about how 2009 was a lame year for comics (especially superhero/mainstream/adventure comics), just doesn't resonate with me at all. I enjoyed a huge amount of comics this year, many of which were from creators I really didn't expect to become such an ardent fan of, and while most of my non-superheroes comic reading was either manga or stuff released previous to 2009, it all still coalesced into a year of reading really fantastic comics.

First off, Achewood reached a relative high again this year, with the Williams-Sonoma/Return of Cartilage Head mega-arc just exploding with avant-garde symbolism and hilarious vagina jokes. Onstad's work continues to single-handedly justify the existence of the Internet, so while it's admittedly an acquired taste and the series takes a while to rev up, it's also developed the characters and world to the point where it's one of the most richly rewarding reading experiences I have on a... well, on a whenever-Onstad-updates schedule.

The other major thing about this year for me, and it seems for a bunch of other people this year, is that I discovered manga, and Naoki Urasawa in particular. 20th Century Boys was the gateway drug, and then Monster and Pluto had me hooked to the Urasawa crackpipe - and got me to spread outward and discover Yazawa, Azuma, Umezu and a host of others I'm excited to get to, much to my pocketbook's dismay. Pluto and Yotsuba&!, the second finally reprinted and continued with volumes 6 and 7 this year, would both make any end-of-the-year top-ten list I'd want to produce.

I also branched out more into indie comics, but I can't place much of what I read under the "released in 2009" banner. Asterios Polyp blew me, like seemingly most people, away; while it's really hard to give an elevator pitch on with regards to story content (I think I have to wipe the drool off peoples' snoring faces five seconds after I hit "goes out to discover small town America"), it's really about the relationship between function, form and emotion, a multilayered meta-treatise involving a range of sometimes conflicting allusions to Greek mythology, Bolshevik country-punk and some pretty funny dick jokes. I've seen the accusation leveled against it that it's "too pretentious", recently from the venerable Ed Brubaker of all people, and that's just not at all how I perceived the comic - yeah, certainly Asterios the CHARACTER is amazingly pretentious, that's part of the point, but I thought the work was equally effective on both a page-turner entertainment level and as a semiotic treasure trove of references, clues and literary porn. It was certainly my favorite comic this year.

I read a lot of other indie stuff in 2009, but most of it was stuff like old issues of Love & Rockets or Cerebus, so that's really besides the point. I just recently got Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit, though, which I'm really looking forward to reading once I polish off this gigantic Cerebus man-tome. Oh, and Scott Pilgrim 5 was fantastic, but I couldn't comment on that as well as Abhay did. Sometimes Abhay pieces drive me absolutely crazy, and sometimes I love them; this was the latter.

So, comics! Even outside of my wheelhouse of superheroes, I had a really great year pushing my boundaries past the stuff I usually read. But this is what people are complaining about, isn't it: that the shared-universe superhero comics aren't holding their interest anymore, that they're going to MOME or Prince Valiant reprints or Johnny Ryan or Daniel Clowes or Naoki Urasawa or Kate Beaton or whatever for their fix.

And I don't get that at all.

2009 was, for me, a banner year for superhero comics. I read a metric truckload of stuff, all of which lacked any sort of childhood-nostalgia pull for me - I was a DC kid, not Marvel, and now Marvel accounts for a solid 75% of my cape pull. I might be a Grant Morrison devotee, and the year started off kicking to me with the conclusion of Final Crisis; while I know there's a whole bevy of criticisms leveled against it, some fair (inconsistent art, somewhat inaccessible, released in the wrong order by the publisher) and some unfair (IT DOESNT MAKE ANY SENSE MORRISON IS ON DRUGS WHAT A FUCKING HACK SOMEONE FIRE HIM UGGGGGGGGGGGH). What really struck me about that comic was the last issue, where Nix Uotan gives Mandrakk a sonning, and for all intents and purposes Morrison himself walked onstage in the comic and told creators to go for broke with all the wacky, outlandish, fun shit available in the superhero milieu and comic medium.

It was a message, like most of Morrison's, that I didn't expect to see followed; the fact that DC continued the year into Emotional Abuse Theater (more on that later) certainly didn't seem to indicate that anyone over there was paying attention, even though I actually enjoyed a decent portion of Messrs. Johns, Rucka and Robinson's output. No, where it actually got heard was at Marvel, which spent the year in the final act of its "Marvel Universe as super-espionage game board" meganarrative that's been ongoing since Bendis and Dell'otto's 2004 Secret War.

In books like Ghost Rider and Punisher and Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter - and exemplified by Hickman's gloriously insane Fantastic Four, my current favorite monthly superhero comic, which debuted in the latter half of the year - a new crop of Marvel writers embraced the promise of expanded scope, of returning to "the business of blowing minds." Jason Aaron, Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman, Kieron Gillen - these are all guys who put out absolutely superlative superhero work in 2009, the kind of big-idea, allegorical brain candy that made me fall in love with superheroes in the first place. And even within Marvel's old paradigm, Bendis and Fraction still put out some career-high material, from Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and certain issues of Dark Avengers (especially #9) to the entire "World's Most Wanted" epic in Invincible Iron Man. Marvel Comics honestly gave me a solid year of (admittedly somewhat overpriced) high quality entertainment, and I'm glad I tried out these lower-tier books (like Beta Ray Bill) which ended up impressing me so much.

And then: that other company. The one with the rape. Detective Comics Comics had a thoroughly bizarre year, punctuated largely by baffling editorial decisions and the continuation of the mindboggling trend of adding MORE titles to franchises already failing. This year saw Justice Society of America go from being a Johns-driven top-selling ensemble book to a two-book B-list franchise freefalling in sales. It saw Andrew Kreisberg's Green Arrow/Black Canary unironically introduce a creepy, obsessed, ex-battered-woman antagonist sexually obsessed with Oliver Queen. It saw James Robinson return to the DC Universe in full force, and put out some pretty damn good Mon-El stories in Superman and some puzzlingly atrocious Justice League work. Tony Bedard's R.E.B.E.L.S. took most people by surprise, and most people were dazzled by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III's Detective Comics and the first three Quitely-drawn issues, at least, of Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin.

And then there was Blackest Night, the world's first superhero event crossover where the central gimmick is desiccated corpses dishing out emotional abuse on characters. The formula became simple and predictable: dead character's flashback as corpse's memory downloads to Black Lantern ring; dead character's corpse shows up and reminds everyone how shitty they are; some character discovers light powers and kills the Black Lanterns. It's how almost all of the tie-ins, and a significant chunk of the main story, have gone, and you know what? Seeing Lightrape the New God of Light Rape go on and on for the fifteenth time about how awesome rape is, seeing a dead baby bite his mother, that kind of shit gets really, really old. It doesn't have much shock value for anyone over the age of twelve, and there's so MUCH of it that any narrative purpose it may have had is completely diluted. It's like watching one of those high school educational tapes, where they explain the same concept with fifteen different metaphors until you want to shoot yourself in the face: NEKRON IS TRYING TO GET A RISE OUT OF PEOPLE. I GET IT. Him and Eric Cartman, and Nekron isn't as funny.

The parts of Blackest Night that are working, that are resonating, are the gee-whiz space opera parts; that's why you've got people buying books they'd never touch otherwise for plastic rings, why Green Lantern sells about the same amount as its event mothership, and why the two Green Lantern titles are absolutely the best part of this entire crossover. Goofy rainbow shit in space will win over yet another corpse going I NEVER LOVED YOU, ALSO I MOLESTED A CHILD, HAHAHAHA for the fortieth time. Much like Skrull appearances in Secret Invasion, Blackest Night has suffered simply by being an eight-issue event miniseries requiring eight months of tie-ins to accompany it.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel... other than the Scions of Morrison I mentioned above, there was still a ton of good stuff: Abnett and Lanning have basically crafted their own little cosmic continuum, a subdivision of the Marvel Universe represented in four monthly titles that effectively serve as a weekly series. Honestly, I don't understand what Johns's Green Lantern material really has over Marvel's cosmic sector that makes it so much more popular - they both deal with the same universe-shattering threats and stuff, except Abnett/Lanning's epic is far more diverse in content and focused in scope.

There's a lot of stuff here I've been reading I haven't even touched on yet, but this has gone over long enough - the current state of the X-Men franchise (and how useless Ellis's Astonishing has become), the Bendis/Maleev motion comics "experiment"... but suffice to say: I had a huge amount of fun reading, and following, comics this year. From Seaguy to Scalped, from the end of Young Liars to the return of Powers, from annotating and commenting on Batman and Robin to gawking and J.H. Williams's art to Detective Comics - I didn't even come close to feeling that things were in a lull. If 2010 is anything like 2009: bring it on.