By MSchiwal Comments
Welcome to a new segment of Sparrows With Machineguns that I like to call Counting to Midnight!
Okay, its a pretentious name for my top twelve lists, I admit that. But anyone who has read anything I have written prior has knowledge of my love for elaboration. My coverage of Marvel NOW! has been nigh all-consuming, so I decided to shake things up with this segment. For our first Counting to Midnight, I am going to cover my top 12 favorite comic book series of 2012. A bit of explanation on this topic: these are my personal favorite and sorted by my own preferences. While I consider myself a reader of quality, some titles may have ranked a higher slot than others by virtue of simply being more entertaining. Once I had the list of candidates I had an extremely difficult time ranking them. Some I was able to say "Did I really enjoy X more than Z?" however with other titles I had to look at them by their length. If a comic had more issues than others and had a bad issue that was fine, however a smaller series would rank higher than a series that I felt had a boring story arc. Another very important aspect was only judging a comic by issues released this year, something I feel that many other reviewers neglect and allow continuing favorites to be elevated by some residual nostalgia.
Without further ado- My personal favorite comic series of 2012:
Swamp Thing is a storm of contradictions. He is a large brutish character but one of the most soulful characters in DC's stable of characters. Swamp Thing is a character that most people actually have heard of due to his uncanny media saturation: 2 films, a surprisingly long running TV show, and an animated series, however few people would be able to tell you there character's name or any details than "Uh, he was the plant guy right?". Many comic fans know the character when through a renaissance under the pen of Alan Moore and became something great and wondrous... However I like many other comic fans have not read Moore's Saga. Yes I know, I am a terrible person. Focusing on the matter at hand though, this current incarnation may well end up being the new definitive telling of the Swamp Thing.
At the start of this year, Alec Holland was still on the run from the Rot, the forces of decay and death that had sent horrific creatures after him and his lover Abby Arcane. Alec had yet to take up the mantle of Swamp Thing, denying the power in order to remain both a human and himself. As an audience it was hard not to root for Alec,we wanted him to manage to stay himself and win out against his fate. Just as much though we wanted to see him become the warrior-king he is destined to become. The issue where he finally is forced to kneel to his fate is my favorite of the series to this day. Abby is revealed to be the avatar of the Rot, just as Alec is to the Green, and she is captured and begins her transformation into an abomination. Meanwhile, the Rot has moved and set blaze to the Parliament of Trees, the place where the Green pulls its strength from... oh and Alec then takes a chainsaw to the chest. Finally willing to undergo the transformation in order to save his life and give him a chance to save Abby. With the Parliament burning, the Green lacks the strength to trigger the transformation and only has the power to slow Alec's death, drawing out his last moments with the realization that this could have all been avoided had he embraced his heritage earlier. Naturally our hero comes out of it, and I am happy to say that due to Alec's own ingenuity is he able to spark his transformation, becoming the Swamp Thing.
Taking a moment aside to talk about the art. This book is gorgeous, the colors are lustrous, the Rot-monsters are sickening and horrifying, and the designs throughout are spectacular. Of particular note is the design of the new Swamp Thing. Usually depicted as a being that expresses both horror and melancholy of Frankenstein's Monster, this new incarnation is the multiple time referred to as the Green's Warrior King, the design fits that perfectly. There is not sorrow in this design, it is glorious, fully elemental and powerful. The little touches such as moss growing on him and the branched crown on his brow really sell things, however it is at the end of his birth when he grows leafy wings and swears to the Rot that "he will show them war" that we realize how magnificent this creature truly is. The layouts in this book are great throughout this arc, showing brilliant creativity. The first time Swamp Thing takes flight we get to see through his eyes, the outline lines around the panels creating the lines of the Swamp Thing's face as we see the desert below us springing into green life.
The beginning arc that was finished this year was a personal favorite and turned me into a fan of this series and this would have ranked much higher if I enjoyed the later issues nearly as much. Eventually Swamp Thing would team up with Animal Man, the Knight of the Red, teaming up to fight the Heart of the Rot. They end up being tricked by the Rot's newest Avatar(the Rot is a cheater and has like three) and both the Green and Red's champions are thrown into the future where the Rot has already won. Which in itself is a good premise, hell I loved it on Samurai Jack. The problem being that these two are not the only heroes in the world and this would have made a GREAT event comic. Screw the upcoming Trinity War(hooray MORE superheroes fighting each other) lets have the heroes of our planet united underneath Swamp Thing and Animal Man fighting to save the world from the forces of death and decay! However I can understand why they wouldn't go that route with the similar event, Blackest Night, still being fresh in people's minds. The main problem here is that with the Rotworld arc, we see Swamp Thing in a post apocalyptic DC universe and fighting against corrupted heroes and villains who boil down to pretty bland cameos half the time. However this story is self contained between two books that are now set in the future where all the heroes are dead, so yeah guess what is going to happen? They are going to end up fixing things and winding back up in the past again. That is how this will end. We all know it, nothing will change and it will have zero impact on the other books. I know this fact shouldn't make me as angry as it does but the Rot was built to be such a huge threat that we want to see the fight between it and the rest of the world, that is the story we want to read... Instead the entire thing is hand-waved and instead we get to see our heroes fighting in order to retcon the enemies from winning. That coupled with the fact that later books just aren't as entertaining or engrossing as the earlier issues this year, regrettably drops Swamp Thing down to the number twelves spot on this year's list.
I loved this series so much and the fact that it was thrown to the side for Thunderbolts is a tragedy. Frank Castle, much like John Constantine, is a character that tends to suffer from something of a split characterization where you have the more serious, down-to-earth stories where they are grounded and age realistically and then others where they fall into the ageless category that most superheroes wind up. For years my favorite run of a Punisher series was Punisher MAX by Garth Ennis and it fell firmly into the former, with the key touchstone of Frank's age being that he served in the Vietnam War. This book falls into the latter category and does a magnificent job of fitting the Punisher into the Marvel Universe.
If they were ever to make a Punisher TV series, this series should be its template. Not so much starring The Punisher in many issues so much as the world he inhabits. The main characters are the victims, cops, and criminals and how they are affected by the Punisher. Frank Castle here isn't so much a character here, as he has already become something primal, he is Godzilla, this natural calamity that sweeps through and on its own its exciting, but the drama comes from how people react to its wake. Key among them is the character I would name the main character, Rachel Cole-Alves, a veteran whose circumstances mirror those of The Punisher's own. It is all a very intelligent way at viewing the Punisher mythos as very rarely are we ever seeing the book from Frank's point of view but almost always are seeing him while following others, whether its a cop describing a shooting he was involved in or a young boy who is sneaking food to the strange veteran who has taken residence nearby.
As I had stated earlier, this book is heavily engrossed in the Marvel Universe and it does this exceedingly well. Throughout most of this run Frank is heavily bandaged and healing from a run in with The Vulture. Soon he ends up going toe to toe with Megacrime, a collaboration between various supervillain organizations like A.I.M. and Black Spectre. This confrontation with Megacrime leads into the Omega Effect, a 3-way crossover between The Avenging Spider-Man, Daredevil, and The Punisher. I really, REALLY enjoyed most of this crossover, it made sense how they got these three working together, I loved how Spider-Man was written as unable to keep himself from joking even though he is scared shitless by Frank and how everyone is unsure what the hell to call Rachel(Punisher-ette?) However at the end of the arc, it ends with nothing having progressed and the arc would simply be wrapped up later in the Daredevil series, leaving a rather bland taste in everyone's mouths. The last portion of this series deals mostly with the Punisher helping Rachel, you can tell that he is seriously considering taking her on but still hoping that she isn't as broken as him and that she has a choice about not being... him. The last few issues are wonderful, with Frank and Rachel spending one issue simple pulling a heist on a Supervillain auction in order to get supplies they will need. You know you should be scared when the Punisher gets his hand on adamantium.
This series ends on a bittersweet note as far as Frank and Rachel go however I really liked how things end up shaking out. If you enjoyed this series then there is an ongoing epilogue called Punisher: War Zone which follows the aftermath of the main series that has created a situation where Frank is being hunted down by the Avengers. I really loved this series and it was killed off far too quickly in order to push Frank onto the Thunderbolts. We can only hope that someday soon Rucka and Castle will be reunited.
I never thought I would have Aquaman become one of my favorite comics but its hard to dislike such a quality series. Adhering to the mantra of "There are no bad characters...", Geoff Johns has turned Arthur into one of the premiere heroes of the New 52 and is quickly turning popular perception of Aquaman on its head. Arthur is a man struggling against how his homes view him. Atlantis wanting him as their king but not needing him, and the surface needing him but ridiculing him to his face. His perseverance throughout is one of his most admirable traits. His wife Mera is a full partner throughout the series, possibly even more powerful than he is, she is a character in her own right without having to rely on her husband. Every scene between these two is a joy and they are remain my favorite couple in the current DC universe.
This year in Aquaman was focused entirely on Atlantis. Arthur and Mera had just taken down the Trench, a race of powerful, cannibalistic monsters when Aquaman's past comes back to haunt him. Beginning with an Atlantean hit squad coming after Arthur and attacking him in the desert, things kick into high gear with the introduction of Arthur's old team, the Others and emergence of his nemesis, Black Manta. Manta is one of those characters who can be either horrifically goofy or incredibly imposing depending on the team behind him and he quickly establishes himself in the latter. Hunting down on of the Others, a woman with pre-cognitive abilities, he establishes himself as a cunning hunter who may just be a match for our Atlantean hero. The Others themselves are all varied and interesting, of particular note is The Operative who needs his own series right-the-hell now! Reuniting after years as Arthur's past is dredged up and we discover the reason for his fued with Black Manta. They killed each others' fathers. Manta had been going after Aquaman and discovered his dad instead who fought him off but died of a heart attack. In retaliation Aquaman kills Black Manta's father and scars Manta's face. It is a really dark turn but it irrevocably locks these two in a cycle of vengeance and it shows our hero in a more tragic light. Any flashback we see him amongst the Others, he is so full of rage that he could hardly be called a hero, it is wonderful to see how he came from that angry young man to one of the world's finest. I also really enjoyed the last moment's of Aquman and Black Manta's duel, with Aquaman sparing his life to be the better man that day but acknowledging the fact that he knows that he will have to kill him someday.
More recently we have been introduced to Orm the Ocean Master, current King of Atlantis. Again, Johns knocks the characterization out of the park. Orm does not in any way come across as a villain but as law-abiding monarch who truly does care about his older brother. The final issue of the year ends up placing the two at end with an event crossing over with the Justice League series. First off, how awesome is it that the first crossover event for the Justice League isn't with Batman or Superman but with Aquaman?!(Answer: Very) Atlantis is attacked by the surface world and war is declared with Aquaman caught in the middle between the two nations. It is building up to be a very cool event and hopefully it will a worthy addition to this series. One major gripe from me on that issue and its Justice League counterpart is that for some reason Mera decided to rip off a quarter of her costume to be more revealing. I adore Mera and she was already sexy with her skin-tight scalemail... the fact that she shows up wearing this outfit when they are at war is groan-inducing and really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Archer & Armstrong
Archer & Armstrong is so much fun that it every time you open a fresh issue it may as well play its own theme music and dispense candy. A long, long time ago, on a Tuesday, three princes changed the world. The youngest, Gilam, had died in battle and the eldest had decided to activate a strange device known as the Boon to save him. The middle child, Aram fought to stop its activation, scared of the price it would ask. Aram strikes too late and his older brother Ivar activates the boon. Their kingdom is wiped off the planet and only they remained.
Cut to modern day where we have a fundamentalist theme park in Middle America where there is a secret assassin training regime in the model of Noah's Arc.
Go ahead, feel free to read that again and let the happiness take over. Inside the arc our hero Archer is beginning his final exam, fighting off all his adopted brothers and sisters in a battle royale. Archer wins easily due to his super power, which may be one of the best abilities I have ever heard of in a comic. Archer can tap into humanity's racial muscle memories, essentially tapping into skills that people have used at different points in the past or present. Lockpicking, Karate, obscure Greek wrestling developed by Hercules, all are at his disposal. Given a golden artifact, he is sent to hunt down the anti-christ... who turns out to be Aram. Our ancient prince has put on many pounds over the years and is currently working as a bouncer in a biker bar under the name of Armstrong. The boon granted him with the 'gift' of immortality, which he has been using to drink, read, sleep, and be awesome. Both of our heroes are soon set upon by one of the many Sects who are out to reconstruct the Boon and gain immortality. It is during this time that Archer realizes that his parents don't care for him, that he is merely a pawn in their quest for power and so he and Armstrong set off to ensure the Boon is never re-assembled.
Since becoming partners their troubles have only increased and have since fought against Da Vinci's deathtraps, deadly nun-jas, and a Sect of Shaolin Nazis. This series specializes in its own brand of irreverent irrelevance that just makes it a true gem. The series has just started its second arc and is still going strong. This series had no bad issues or missteps in it, and if it had run all year it would have been a serious contender for the number one spot(we will see about 2013). For now though its five issues earn it the number 9 spot and a serious recommendation from myself.
It can be a slow and painful thing to watch a man who takes himself to seriously. Daredevil was in serious danger of falling into that chasm. Thank God for Mark Waid. Returning Matt Murdock to the happy swashbuckler from days past, our hero decided to stop being sad and be awesome instead.
Daredevil's year began with the Omega Drive, a strange device that was once a "4" badge from a Fantastic Four costume. As their costumes are made from unstable molecules and have been exposed to unknown radiations and energy from their travels, it had become something more, a data drive with unlimited capacity. It was in this unassuming vessel that Megacrime placed their secrets. During his first adventure of the year, Matt gets his hands on the Omega Drive and Megacrime begins hunting him down.
Daredevil soon enters the Omega Effect cross-over with Spider-Man and The Punisher. This event is covered in the Punisher review(entry 11) and my thoughts are expressed there. However I will say that I really loved Matt's arc in the story, as he attempts to talk Rachel out of becoming like the Punisher. Matthew believes that maybe he could have talked Frank out of being how he is if he had gotten the chance earlier and gets that chance here with Rachel. Its very telling seeing Matt attempting to save someone during all the chaos and even more so seeing him blame himself for Frank's own darkness which he has no control over.
Personally I felt that the Omega Drive storyline should have been wrapped up during the Omega Effect. The eventual ending felt like a wrap up as Daredevil turns to the Avengers to assist him. They could have done this at anytime but instead the storyline got carried on for a few issues too long. However two good story threads did come during this time, Matt's relationship with the new District Attorney and Daredevil's capture at the hands of Dr Doom. Daredevil is spirited away to Latveria, his senses destroyed by toxins, and he is left truly unable to comprehend his surroundings. Its a great arc and his escape is particularly thrilling.
Then comes Coyote, a new villain who uses his powers to destroy Matt's life and credibility. He does so through out this year, planting the seeds of doubt in his best friend's mind and even getting Matt to doubt himself. I am not going to reveal the who, why, or how Coyote does this but I will say that I really liked this villain and his storyline led to some of the creepiest imagery I saw all year.
Daredevil is in fine form this year and I am so very glad that Marvel decided to keep this series running rather than give it a relaunch in NOW! This series is still going strong and next issue we have Daredevil vs Spider-man and the return of Stilt-Man. Hell Yeah!
This may well be the best thing to come of DC's New 52. One year later and I am being constantly shocked at the lack of cohesion, between time compression and retcons, the whole universe has become a minefield. Successful series generally exist because they did not have their continuity disturbed, Wonder Woman is the exception.
Years ago Wonder Woman had her origin retold and in that story she was formed by her mother from clay and had life breathed into her by the gods. It was a fitting origin that suited her mythological roots and was wholly original to her. At the beginning of the year, Diana has just learned that the story of her being formed from clay was a lie she had been told her entire life to conceal the truth, that she is a demigod and the child of Zeus. Hippolyta kept this fact from her to keep Diana safe from Hera's jealous wrath and when this fact becomes revealed, Hera strikes down all the Amazons. Diana is now on the run protecting Zola, a pregnant girl who is carrying another of Zeus' children and is accompanied by Hermes. This year is very dedicated to Diana learning more about her divine heritage as the supporting cast throughout the series is either a God, a demigod and sibling, or Zola who is carrying a new demigod. All this is happening while Zeus has disappeared and the gods begin warring over the Throne of Olympus.
This is a great story. The author really gets Wonder Woman, she is a great and fierce woman but you never doubt for a second her love and compassion. I also love the way the Greek Gods are rendered. They are all very alien, Hermes being avian, Hephaestus is squat and volcanic, Poseidon is a grand leviathan. They also generally refer to each other by their function which makes an interesting amount of sense, with Poseidon being called 'Sea' or Hades 'Hell'. Hades is the only design which I simply don't understand... he is rendered as a child in armor whose head is covered in candles, the wax coating his face. Its a very interesting design I just don't really get why that is Hades, especially the reason he is drawn child-like. Still that is simply a personal preference.
I would say this series very much is the deconstruction of Wonder Woman and is done very well. One of the most controversial aspects of this has been the Amazons who have become more monstrous in their actions and it has been polarizing to some fans. It is now explained that the Amazons board ships that sail near their home, take the men by force and then kill them. This is how they are able to have daughters and continue their race of only women. Male children it is explained are given to Hephaestus to work his forges in exchange for the magical arms and armor the amazons bear. I personally really liked this explanation, as it answers a lot of questions about the Amazons that many would take for granted. Also the idea of a Amazons reaving and raping, to me at least, works with the old Greek Mythology... however I can understand how many, especially female readers, can take umbrage to this retcon. Many readers boycotted the series after this issue came to light, and that is why I felt it necessary to cover it here so you could make your decision fully informed on whether or not to read the series.
In more recent issues, the battle for Olympus has resolved(for now) and an Olympian has claimed the throne. Diana is now searching for Zola, who was kidnapped, and is turning to her other demigod brothers and sisters for help. However the biggest news of this arc is the re-introduction of another mythology, that of the New Gods. I am really excited to see more of Orion and Genesis in the future and this series has become a perfect place, I feel, to introduce the Fourth World.
This has been a fantastic series and is a personal favorite of mine. The best depiction I have read of Diana in years, you can tell the author really understands the character and how to write her. The return to a more mythological bent in the story is greatly appreciated and serves to set the series apart from the rest of the DC universe in an appreciable way. Lastly the art is just superb, it has a style all its own that is unlike any other series on the shelves right now. If you are at all intrigued by this series, then you owe it to yourself to check it out!
I am cutting this particular post in half as the reviews have gotten very long-winded even for me. I really am wanting to keep posting as much as I can so I would rather give you all something to read now rather than make you wait till I can finish this.
Anyways feel free to give me feedback on these choices, your picks, or even try to guess what the next choices will be. Also as this is a new segment for me I would love any comments or criticism you may have on the format.