... And Here's Why: The 2006 Shadowcat Awards

This is a repost of my column "And Here's Why" that originates from http://thecomicsreview.com/

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Ladies and Gentleman, Nerds and Fanboys, Virgins and Misanthropes, welcome to the first annual “And Here’s Why” Shadowcat Awards.

A year end column seemed the thing to do, basically since everyone else is doing it and I lack creativity. I suppose the fact that the “Year End Awards” are such a pervasive form in criticism means they must have some merit, like the popularity of Justin Timberlake or Meryl Streep.

Anyhoo, time permitting, you should get two columns in a comparatively short period of time. I assume you all wait for a new column, tired and weeping, fully clothed inside of your bathtubs. So… you’ll do that for less time, or something. MAZELTOV!

More horrible choices for year-end awards than you can shake Joe Kelly at… And Here’s Why

Best Series: Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon (story) and John Cassaday (art)

I think we can all concede the point that “Dangerous” was a weak arc, full of padding and unfinished ideas. However, Whedon and Cassaday put any fears that they were a one-act wonder behind them with the uniform widescreen brilliance of “Torn”. Scheduling definitely hurt its efficacy from issue to issue, but one has to imagine that won’t matter as time rolls on. What time will remember is that “Astonishing X-Men” was one of the best X-Men series ever published.

2006 was a very good year for the X-Men all together, with Marvel seemingly valuing the quality of the concept even though sales are mostly bulletproof (the same idea that saw Batman make a return to the halls of greatness). “Torn” managed to cram just about everything interesting about X-Men comics, whether it was the family atmosphere, soap opera dynamics, or large scale superheroics. Some people felt that the humor was a little to over-the-top, but I felt it was essential Whedon – big humor undercut immediately with engaging and contextually realistic drama.

It was also the first “Astonishing” storyline that truly sold Kitty Pryde as an important, and dangerous, lead character. As good as “Gifted” was – and it was all kinds of great – it almost insisted upon the reader that she was supercool, telling us rather than showing us. But here Kitty is the star, as Whedon has always intended, and he makes the most of her screentime. Not only is she given some truly heartbreaking motivation, she legitimately holds her own against the uber-powerful Emma Frost in a scene that just barely missed “Best Moment” honors.

The final Whedon/Cassaday storyline, “Unstoppable”, has been given an excellent lead-in this year. It’s only now apparent that Whedon may have the chance to legitimately say something about the X-Men, rather than just playing with the toys he grew up dreaming about.

Best Issue (DC): Superman/Batman Annual #1 by Joe Kelly (story) and Ed McGuinness and Ryan Ottley (art)

It puzzles me that this was the first issue I thought of for best of the year. Somehow, this innocuous little book left quite an impression, I assume because it does something that almost never works, and does it well.

Joe Kelly and Ed McGuiness are the reason you care about Deadpool at all, and the two use there reunion to both take a good-natured slap at the character and tell an exceedingly fun story about the Batman/Superman dynamic. If you’re going to do a disposable story, at least do it right – be memorable, but… inoffensive. “Superman/Batman Annual” has that part down; while it may not enhance any of your feelings about the characters it’s end to end entertaining action story.

It’s biggest flaw is that it may necessitate the reader be in on the central joke – that Deadpool was originally a shameless ripoff of Deathstroke. Since Deadpool has grown so much as a character since his debut the similarities are mostly superficial and nostalgic now, the joke may not be all that clear. Certainly, the “Earth 2” conceit does a little leg work, but if that’s all someone is given it may be merely a good story rather than one of the best mainstream humor books of recent memory.

Best Issue (Marvel): X-Factor #13 by Peter David (story) and Pablo Raimondi (art)

I’m largely against sequels to landmark comics (“Dark Knight Strikes Again” and “God Loves, Man Kills II” were both disappointing, for instance), but that apparently does not hold true for cult landmarks. “X-Factor #13” is a callback to Peter David’s run on the original incarnation of the team, when he crafted the undervalued, but respected, story called “Examinations”. It was unique for its time period, in that it was all talking heads – an entire issue of the X-Factor squad pouring out its heart in Doc Sampson’s office.

“ReXaminations” comes with the exact same idea, but the tone of the new series is more conducive to this sort of thing. That makes it far easier for the entire readership to grasp, because they’ve already been sold on the talking heads style of superhero fiction. To that extent, “X-Factor” has been a near perfect addition to the genre, and it’s never been better than here.

Every line of dialogue is loaded with heart and subtext, dripping with the sort of subtle depth that still makes David a relevant writer so long after his original popularity. The art too is better than the original issue, as new artist Pablo Raimondi is better suited for a muted philosophical tale than Joe Quesada (who I should admit has never been a favorite of mine – thusly, your mileage may vary). I think it may work better to non-fans as well, since the new X-Factor is full of blank slates and non-entities, rather than the continuity nightmares that populated David’s nineties incarnation. “X-Factor #13” is a high-quality example of superhero comics as analogues, in that it’s just as good at conveying real human neurosis and drama as any other form of art – even if the psychologist is a green-haired strongman and the lead makes exact duplicates of himself every time he gets hit.

Best Issue (Other): Fell #5 by Warren Ellis (story) and Ben Templesmith (art)

Fell has been positively brilliant in both concept and execution, delivering six issues of powerful and entertaining comics in less space for less money. I knew going in that one of the stories would be my favorite “Other” issue of the year, but I had no clue how to narrow it down to one. It could have been any of the installments; the tremendous introduction, the bomb scare in issue 3, the child abuser in issue 6.

Yet The fifth story comes out ahead by a rather surprising margin. Ellis states in the letter column that he’s long dreamed of writing an interrogation story, and that long simmering love really shows. “Fell” is the perfect vehicle for a smaller story like this, since by virtue of the unifying concept of the series, its readership is ready for and interested in experimental tales like this. Ellis rarely lets you out of the room for the entire book – in all honesty it’s an entire comic about Det. Richard Fell interrogating a mentally unhinged man. It’s Ellis’ pacing and Templesmith’s dark art that really shines here, as you never feel like you’re being told what’s happening even while the characters alternate monologues. Ellis is surprisingly subtle, a perfect complement to the raw brooding of Templesmith’s claustrophobic pencils. Stories like these (and the mechanically similar “X-Factor #13”) live and die by nuance and carefully crafted language, which has certainly been the most impressive thing about the series.

With it’s reduced price tag and consistent quality there shouldn’t be any reason for “Fell” to be off of anyone’s pull list. Hell, it barely ever comes out, so you don’t even have to spend $1.99 a month.

Best Debut Issue: Immortal Iron Fist #1 by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction (Story) and David Aja (art) & Justice Society Of America #1 by Geoff Johns (story) and Dale Eaglesham (art) [TIE]

There’ve been a great deal of tremendous launches this year, but “Immortal Iron Fist” and “Justice Society Of America” succeeded for the same reasons – they were able to revive stale concepts by staying true to their important mythological roots and updating them for a new audience.

Iron Fist has been the butt of jokes for a while now, going as far as to be relegated to the sidelines while former partner Luke Cage made his case for comic book immortality in the industry’s highest selling book. He’d been subject to failed attempts at new ongoings before, but they seemed to forget what Brubaker and Fraction have saturated their book with: treat him right, and Iron Fist is a badass. The K'un L'un stuff is still here, but the (sometimes goofy) mystical city is handled beautifully, written with enough tact and beautifully drawn by David Aja. They also seem to downplay the out of date origin of the character, instead spending time with the things that still work – the still-novice heroism, the corporation, and the timelessness that make Iron Fist unique. It’s still a little continuity heavy (such as the appearance of the Silver Serpent), but it’s a nice start.

The previous JSA series lost steam around the “Infinite Crisis”, but in large part the series represented the best in old-school superhero comics. The situations were suitably modern, but the essence of the book always resided in an air of narrative familiarity that surrounded it’s Golden Age characters. Johns has been given a fresh start, however, and has decided to do something that brims with potential. The old guard is still here (represented by Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, Wildcat, and Hawkman), but they’ve become the finishing school for the DC Universe, taking in the unbalanced and dangerous neophyte superheroes. It’s actually been a long time coming, as the best moments of the previous series stemmed from the generation gap between the team members. The first issue borders on too quirky, but I have faith that it was a conscious decision to overplay the lack of stability in the new recruits. It should only get better than here, and Johns may have finally carved out a nice for the JSA that isn’t just a retirement home.

Best Shameless Capitalistic Relaunch: The Amazing Spider-Girl by Tom Defalco (story) and Ron Lim (art)

This is pretty much the most biased pick on the list, since I’ve followed the character since her inception way back when. I’ve long been a little ashamed of it, too – the book was disgraceful as often as it was charming, and DeFalco couldn’t seem to get a hold on consistency. He’s from a shameful era in Spider-Man comics (the Clone Saga being his worst atrocity) and he spent a good deal of Spider-Girl’s page space trying to spin those characters and plot developments into a better light. Sometimes it worked, such as the use of maligned Spider-clone Kaine and the bittersweet undertones the specter of Ben Reilly brings to the proceedings, but it was mostly a poor choice. There’s not much of that period comic fans remember fondly, so Mayday Parker was pretty much stillborn from the get go.

Yet after being saved by voracious fan support for the umpteenth time (well, three that I remember) to become the longest running female-led Marvel comic, DeFalco and Lim have begun operating at a level no one could’ve imagined. Even though he still seems enamored with the Clone-era, DeFalco’s plots are tighter and more interesting, managing to capture a more light-hearted seventies vibe without sacrificing drama. Every single problem the original series has is either downplayed considerably or eliminated, resulting in a book that reads more like a viable comic than a well-meaning back issue.

Best Hero: Batman

This was truly Batman’s year, from high quality main books to excellent spin-offs and mini-series. Even DC Comic’s biggest event, “Infinite Crisis”, was crafted in part to right his sinking Batboat, resulting in a newly revitalized franchise that’s as good as an elite branch should be.

I don’t think many people would argue that the cipher Batman had become had been somewhat played out, as subsequent writers took Grant Morrison and Mark Waid’s vision of a suspicious tactical genius and ruined it by filling it with hyperbole and melodrama. Batman being one step ahead of absolutely everyone is interesting, but using his talents to become a twisted and malicious shadow isn’t.

It didn’t even take a whole lot of work to turn him around. All DC had to do was make sure he was treated as a human with issues, someone who’s not incapable of love or so paranoid that he doesn’t trust anyone. Even though Batman is inherently distrustful, it isn’t an excuse to make him psychotic; it just means that the characters he does love and trust like Nightwing, Robin, or Superman become all the better with his respect. Was there a better moment in “Infinite Crisis” than Batman’s touching rebuke of the Golden Age Superman by asking if Dick Grayson was any better on Earth-2?

With the character revamped into a more viable lead character both main books flourished. James Robinson’s “One Year Later” kick-off “Face The Face” was simply a very good Batman story, from the dark villains to the excellent interaction between Batman and his supporting cast. Although the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert “Batman And Son” was uneven, it at least had a verve and daring that the last couple of years had lacked, and Paul Dini’s “Detective Comics” one and dones have been almost uniformly great.

Even the usually extraneous mini-series and satellite books were better this year. “Batman: Year 100” and Matt Wagner’s “Dark Moon Rising” books were heaped upon by critical praise, “All-Star Batman” sold a ridiculous amount of copies when it actually came out, and both sidekick books, “Robin” and “Nightwing”, both carved niches for themselves as solo titles.

Although the current John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake fill-in collaboration has been pretty sub-par, one has to have hope that Morrison’s return to the book will benefit from the lead time and by passing through some growing pains. Dini’s last issue has been his best yet, which leads one to think Batman will continue to be a force of quality in the coming year.

Best Villain: Superboy-Prime in Infinite Crisis

It takes a lot of heart and skill to pull off a controversial decision like the fall of Superboy, and mastermind Geoff Johns brought a surprising amount of both. “Infinite Crisis” wasn’t perfect, but if you found it even slightly good that has to be in part due to the handling of the former Kid Of Steel. I never once felt like I was being manipulated by shock tactics while Superboy became one of the most vile antagonists in the DC Universe, instead opting to let Johns sell me on the pathetic nature of the situation. Superboy’s slaughter of the Teen Titans, albeit graphic, was truly heartbreaking, with every inch of space and dialogue forming the best reason to pick the series up.

I was relieved to see that Superboy-Prime’s story doesn’t end with the murder of Conner Kent, as he’s been floating around “Green Lantern”, a chilling ghost of the blockbuster storyline. With Dan Didio’s recent comments to the effect that “Infinite Crisis” wasn’t the big event, but a piece of a much larger epic, it seems that all the work that went into Superboy-Prime’s character isn’t going to be wasted.

Breakout Character: Warpath in Uncanny X-Men

When the new line-ups for the core X-Men books were announced, I was most puzzled by Warpath’s inclusion. It seemed a waste of a perfectly good roster spot that could’ve gone to an underused character that actually had potential, rather than some giant Native American guy who wasn’t even interesting in Rob Liefield’s “X-Force”.

But I can admit when I’m wrong, and f* me, I was wrong. Warpath is the best reason to read Ed Brubaker’s “The Rise And Fall Of The Shi’Ar Empire” in Uncanny X-Men. It’s his overpowering and engaging presence that has allowed Brubaker to take a slower approach to his massive space opera, which is ultimately going to pay off when the entire storyline is collected. He’s the widescreen action hero of the arc, stabbing bitches and snapping off one-liners as a he hopefully secures a larger place in the X-Men mythos. Now, if colorist Frank D’Armata would stop making it look like he’s covered his costume in shrink wrap…

Best Moment: Captain America vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. in Civil War #1

I’ve had well-documented problems with “Civil War” thus far, but it’s been the evolution of Captain America that’s kept me reading and giving it the benefit of the doubt. Between this and “Ultimates” it’s becoming abundantly clear that Millar knows how to write Cap, even if it still suffers slightly from the ever-present sledgehammer of The Writer that plagues most of his work.

There’s no better moment to illustrate that point – or keep you reading “Civil War” – than when Captain America turns on S.H.I.E.L.D. by taking out an entire Helicarrier of troops. It instantly buys both Cap’s involvement in the Superhero Registration Act and the storyline itself, by showing in the most spectacular way possible what it means to the most iconic hero in Marvel’s pantheon. Between the (almost only) shining star in “Civil War” and the critical praise for the Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting solo book, Cap was a close runner-up for “Best Character”, and it’s this moment that got the ball rolling.

Best Mini-Series: Beyond! by Dwayne McDuffie (story) and Scott Kollins (art)

2006 didn’t seem a good year for mini-series, at least in my frame of reference. As I poured over the stuff I read nothing actually blew me away – they ranged from pretty okay (“X-Men Deadly Genesis”, “Batman And The Monster Men”), to unfinished (who knows, “Dr. Strange: The Oath could end with The Doc fighting Dragon Man and his magic Dragon undies in an attempt to get some of that sweet, sweet Eragon money), to puzzling (“Colossus: Bloodline”: What. The. F*).

So Beyond! wins kind of by default, even if it had a conclusion that left me angry and confused. For the first couple of issues everything was completely fine, with McDuffie delivering a fun, old-school script with a decidedly modern bent; full of drama without resorting to histrionics or over-the-top bloody carnage. Kollins too brings his best effort, but his raw and scratchy style is definitely not for everyone no matter how much texture it brings the series.

As I alluded to, the conclusion hurts the series a great deal, as it abandons the tone it cultivated for its run by becoming everything it was seemingly crafted to comment on. Still recommended, but temper your expectations.

Best Comic You Aren't Reading: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane by Sean McKeever (story) and Takeshi Miyazawa (art)

Anything that isn’t male-oriented is a notoriously hard sell in the realm of mainstream comics. I myself was a little hesitant to pick up any of the “Mary Jane” books even though they came highly recommended form people whose taste I trust, such as Randy Lander of the former “The Fourth Rail”.

It rewards you exponentially for the risk to your nerd cred, as “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane” is a high quality alternative to books solely about people punching other people. It uses the theory that superheroes should be analogues for the human condition to its fullest effect, letting Spider-Man’s larger-than-life actions merely provide the backdrop for the real drama to play out among Peter and the members of his supporting cast. Not enough can be said about what McKeever and Miyazawa do here every month, putting a huge amount of effort into selling a concept that’s ridiculous in the first place and has no real chance of succeeding. At best, it’ll sell marginally, hopefully recouping it’s production cost.

It can still be a bit soapy at times, but it’s usually more credible that that. “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane” is alternately sweet, heartbreaking, touching, funny, and dramatic. And really, why else do we read comic books?

Best Book I Read For The Comics Review: Toopydoups by Kevin McShane (story and art)

I read a lot of stuff that doesn’t grab me for The Comics Review, mostly because I try and dabble in every genre companies are nice enough to send me. Out of the mountain of stuff I’ve been handed I only follow two regularly, “Elephantmen” and “Toupydoops”. “Elephantmen” is a very high quality book, but “Toupydoops” takes the award by being consistently one of the best books on the racks.

It may be the fact that I relate with the titular character, since we’re at close to the same stage in our lives. While it’s told with humor, “Toupydoops” is really a story about the pitfalls that come with chasing your dreams and how far you’re willing to go to make them happen. The most interesting piece of the book is how rarely it strays from its core themes. “Toupydoops” is ostensibly a comedy series, but it hardly ever indulges itself in tangential humor. Most of the jokes come from either the desperation of Toupy’s situation or his unassailable disposition. Either way, “Toupydoops” is some of the most fun you’ll have reading a comic, and depending on your station, you may actually take something away from it.

Breakout Writer: Ed Brubaker on Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil, Captain America, Criminal, X-Men: Deadly Genesis, Books Of Doom, and The Immortal Iron Fist

Brubaker’s not a new writer by any stretch of the imagination, with critically lauded books like “Gotham Central”, “Sleeper”, “Catwoman”, and “Point Blank”. It was, however, in 2006 that Brubaker became a mainstream superstar. While the War was Civil and the Crisis was Infinite, Brubaker spent the year turning in some of the most brilliant superhero work in recent memory.

He did the impossible, bringing back Bucky to critical acclaim in the pages of “Captain America”, revealed a secret second team of X-Men in “Deadly Genesis”, managed to make people forget the names Bendis and Maleev on “Daredevil”, and revived a C-List afterthought in “The Immortal Iron Fist”. None of which were ever bad, with low points that still managed to be readable and engaging.

I never thought that the noir-obsessed Brubaker would find himself as one of the top superhero writers in the industry, but his first year at Marvel Comics proved that a good writer is just a good writer. Brubaker has transformed himself into someone who can seemingly write anything with an equal amount of skill and quality, whether it be straightforward crime fiction or a space opera with giant swords.

Breakout Artist: Stuart Immonen on Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.

Much like Brubaker, Immonen has been kicking around for quite some time, working for Marvel Comics since 1993. It was 2006 where he finally seemed to catch fire, beginning the year by finishing up his tremendous run on “Ultimate X-Men” and ending it by snatching the coveted job of following Mark Bagely on “Ultimate Spider-Man”.

It was the middle period that made people notice, though. “Nextwave: Agents Of H.A.T.E.” has been wildly inconsistent, seemingly twisting with every one of Warren Ellis’ whims. Even as the writing has been slightly disappointing from time to time, Immonen is always brilliant, making even the worst of Ellis’ choices sing with a quirky and unique timber that almost forgives their weaknesses. Take a look at issue #13, one of the weaker pieces of business in the entire run. It’s near incomprehensible fanboy baiting from Ellis’ point, but Immonen spins between divergent styles without missing a beat, aping Steranko and Maleev while injecting it with his own bent imagination. It’s a truly astounding example of an artistic chameleon in peak form.

Immonen has been given a great deal of responsibility with “Ultimate Spider-Man”, and before this year I would have stood on top of the tallest building I could find and denounced the decision. No one would’ve had a clue what I was talking about, but I’d know I was very, very angry. Now I’m more excited for an artistic change than I’ve been in quite some time, wondering about the possibilities now available to Brian Michael Bendis that come with his new, continually indescribable partner.

Biggest Return To Glory: Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis (story) and Mark Bagely (art)

At one point “Ultimate Spider-Man” was the top book in the industry, with hundreds of thousands of fans hanging on every new issue. But it was soon crushed by its own excesses, whether it was the unwieldy pacing or over-reliance on simply “Ultimizing” concepts from the existing Marvel Universe. It never fell too far in the sales category, but the days of “Ultimate Spider-Man” as a comic book rainmaker faded.

Perhaps with less of an unyielding industry eye on the book, Bendis was able to reassess and get the series back on track. The major problems are still here, but they’ve been deemphasized. Although the storylines may be a little too long, no issue feels like a Jip-Off, with important storyline beats in each installment instead of entire issues of filler (like the introduction of the Ultimate Black Cat). And although we may never see the end of “Ultimizing”, the changes and revamps are more organic and interesting than they’d been in the wake of the low point of the series, “Hobgoblin”. These concepts have withstood the apathy that comes with time for a reason, with core themes and values that are inherent to their success. It’s that basic understanding that seems to give life to the newer Ultimate characters, which lets fans connect with the stories while allowing them room to grow in different directions than their predecessors.

“Ultimate Spider-Man” isn’t completely over the evils that led to its downfall in the first place, but it’s at least not letting them get in the way of the bigger picture. “Ultimate Spider-Man” leaves 2006 back near it’s peak quality, but it remains to be seen whether or not the fan community will allow it back into their good graces.

-MD

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