Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ugly American 2013 Year in Review

2013 Book of the Year: Hawkeye
Marvel Comics
Scripts: Matt Fraction
Art: David Aja, Francesco Francavilla, Annie Wu, Matt Hollingsworth, others

Every time I get done reading an issue of Hawkeye, I set the book down with a puzzled look on my face and state out loud:

"I can't believe Marvel is publishing this comic book."

I kinda mean that in all the pejorative ways you think I do. I have a complicated relationship with Marvel comics. I respect their ability to make short-term profits while simultaneously pouring kerosene all over themselves and fumbling with matches. They produce wildly entertaining comics for the most part, and attract the best talent in the industry.

But finding Hawkeye at Marvel Comics is like discovering a 4 Michelin star chef at a Mos Eisley tavern.

It just doesn't fit. This is a "superhero" comic in which the superhero will wear anything except his costume, and balks at folks even mentioning his alter ego. It's a superhero comic that firmly believes that an Event is when Lucky the Pizza Dog gets his own issue.

It's hard to describe exactly how Hawkeye transcends Pop Art into Art Art. Easier just to show you, maybe. A great deal of the book is built upon the insanely complicated relationship between Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, who also carries a bow and the Hawkeye name. Here's a scene from issue # 13:

It's almost impossible to get at all the subtext buried in that little bit of elegance, but I'll try to unpack a bit of it.

Clint is a broken man with a good heart. He never actually means to do harm, but he can never be bothered to curb his impulses enough to avoid it. Particularly when it comes to women. He knows he ought not get involved with Kate, who is far too young for him. It feels sort of inevitable, though. He won't stop himself - that's his history, and he's still an emotional child.

As the physical adult and card-carrying Avenger, Clint is in the....I don't know, authoritative position? But here Kate is playing the part of wife, or maybe even mother. For most basic human interactions, (in this case they're preparing for a neighbor's funeral) Kate is actually in control.

Sort of. She plays the part of the young adult well..you can see her growing in that "fake it until you make it" way as the issues go by.. She's still a very young woman, though, working her way through confidence foibles and stumbling through a lot of bad decisions. Her pursuit of Clint being one of those bad decisions.

We'll blame Clint if and when that relationship does take an inappropriate turn, and we probably should. But Katie flirts as well. I remember a scene where Clint is packing boxes, and asks for tape. Katie hands him a Scotch tape dispenser - part of that was her being passive aggressive, but part of that was school girl flirting. Do you have a lot of comics in your stack that can build an indelible memory out of packing boxes? Do you have a lot of superhero comics doing that for you?

So there's Clint and Katie getting dressed for a funeral, figuring out how to love each other the best they can, taking turns pretending to be the adult of the situation, balancing their needs to rely on each other with their physical desires, wanting the best for each other while simultaneously waiting for the inevitable calamity.

That's not a quippy piece of pop art...Fraction routinely aims for Art Art, and he nails it in this book again and again and again. Depth. Subtext. Emotion.

There's enough emotion in that scene that Clint can't take it, and has to bail. "Great, now I got another thing to worry about I never worried about before", he says, tugging uncomfortably at his collar.

What he's actually saying is "You taking care of me feels too good, and I don't love myself enough to accept that, and I know this ends with me hurting you any way...so I'm going to skip right to it and say something to break the spell right now." So he does. And it works. He hurts her enough to cut the tension, she leaves in a huff, and he feels like crap.

And that's Hawkeye, the Ugly American 2013 Book of the Year. I can't believe Marvel publishes that comic book, and I can't believe it's a big seller, but kudos to us for recognizing that great stories don't necessarily have anything to do with Thanos trying to take over the universe. This is a special comic, and my greatest hope is that it frees up Marvel to allow creators to take more sophisticated chances.

And please don't misunderstand - I'm not going all froofy on you, here. Not every book has to be Hawkeye. I just like the idea of living in a world where we can rack Hawkeye in with Amazing X-Men and Marvel just trusts that we're capable of handling a variety of approaches.

Other Great Books In No Particular Order

Saga, Image
Another book very comfortable with subtext and sophistication, but dressed in the gaudiest of genre trappings. It's also a book very comfortable with uncomfortable things. Like the child sex trade. Or just regular sex. Or debating the value of "pulling the wagon" for the 99%.

To be honest, Saga is basically the best porn on the stands. The problem with most porn is that it gets so excited about being able to give you the sex that it forgets there are other things in the world, and so it comes off as obsessive and unbalanced. Saga is as dirty as life is, and that's pretty dirty, thank God!

Fiona Staples is a marvel, just in case you weren't aware. I could look at Alana all day long. Don't be surprised if this comic takes the top spot in 2014.

Nowhere Men, Image
This is such a weird little gem. Nowhere Men is supposedly about a world in which science is the "new rock-n-roll", and it does pay some attention to the ramifications of a world in which science is infected with celebrity. It's "Fab Four" scientists are by far the least interesting characters in the book, however. It's possible that the enigmatic Mr. Walker might buck that trend, but we never really see him "on camera", and the only things we know about him are what we learn from other people's perceptions.

It's also possible we never get to see Thomas Walker, and Stephenson just holds him as a legend and a MacGuffin. He's doing the same thing building up Peter Panic, who we've also yet to meet on the page. I'll say this for Nowhere Men - it implies a very large, very strange world. Eric Stephenson builds in a lot of magazine-style interviews and advertisements and such that are just spot-on, lots of fun, and really help you feel immersed.

What else to say without ruining it? I don't want to say much about the plot itself, best to just go and read without too many preconceptions. If you like science fiction with a dollop of horror, this is perfect. If you liked X-Files, yes, come on in! If you like reading creators that take chances telling big stories with big worlds, you should absolutely spend the pittance it will take to buy the first Nowhere Men TPB. Retail is $9.99, and you can certainly find it for less. I don't know exactly where this is going or whether it will pay off. I don't know if the ever-slowing production schedule is going to bog this into oblivion. I do know that the Nowhere Men comics that came out in 2013 were more interesting than 93.8% of what's out there.

Ballistic, Black Mask
This is another science fiction gem from something called Adam Egypt Mortimer and a guy you may have heard of named Darick Robertson. You probably haven't heard of Ballistic, though, largely because it came from Black Mask publishing. I bet your LCS just spaced it.

Ballistic is a delicious little imagination bomb that can't be stopped. A lot of comics writers get very precious with their ideas, as if they're only going to have about five in their whole life. So they dole out the good ones one per issue, or one per arc. Adam Egypt Mortimer trusts his Muse, because he lets a brain bomb rip about every other panel.

This comic looks great, and it's kinetic at a level rarely attempted, much less achieved. Pick up an issue, any issue, and tell me you aren't instantly infected by Ballistic's charms!

Afterlife With Archie
Can you even imagine how good this comic would have to be to crack my Best of 2013 list while shipping only two issues?

You'll never believe how strong a horror story this is until you pick it up and experience it. Whatever your feelings about the Archie universe might be...I'm telling you...do not discount this comic until you've had a chance to see it for yourself.

I'm awestruck at how adeptly Aguirre-Sacasa was able to integrate lame little Riverdale into a straight horror story, and the Francesco Francavilla art is to die for.

Harbinger has now solidified itself as the best of the Valiant Universe, in my opinion. Most of the Valiant titles are strong, so that's significant.

I don't hear many people talk about Josh Dysart as an ascendent talent. That's a mistake. Between his work on Unknown Soldier and now this, Dysart's work is just smarter and edgier than than the pack. Whatever Dysart puts his name on...that's a mandatory test-drive for me at this point.

What shines on Harbinger are the characters and the twists that recharge the plot. You do not know what's coming....trust me. You do not know what character is going to be driving the A plot at any given moment, because Dysart knows and loves them all so much, there's no choice but to take turns. Toyo Harada is now one of the more interesting characters in the medium, as well.

Avengers Academy was a standout surprise treat this year. Superior Spider-Man is so, so good...why can't they sell that for $2.99? I would ride horses through the streets with a trumpet announcing to the world how good that book was if they just charged a reasonable rate.

East of West has supplanted Manhattan Projects as my go-to Hickman fix. That thing is raw ambition. It suffers for its lack of a rooting interest, but the assholes are certainly interesting, and the scale of that book defines epic.

Snyder and Capullo's Batman is prime cut, and never fails to entertain. When this generation remembers Batman and his supporting cast, it will be Snyder's Batman they remember. The only other DC book that stands out in my mind was Injustice: Gods Among Us. When creators are allowed to do what they want with the toys, good things happen. Tom Taylor did some remarkably fun things with those DC toys.

That's my very brief take on the best of 2013 - which books were your favorites?

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