The Year in Review: The Best Comics of 2010, Part I

For most American pop culture writers, it’s hard to resist compiling end of the year lists of the best we read, watched, or listened to in the 12-months just, or nearly, past. Unable to resist, I, too begin the ritual, but the lists presented here and next month aren’t the usual ‘best of’ compilations.

This column is about what comics can tell us about the wider world and how they relate to other arts and media.The comics I’ve selected are all good and entertaining reads, but that’s not my main reason for pulling them out for notice. The books I point to here are more specifically the ones I read this past year that most clearly open up the themes addressed in “Worlds in Panels”.

My first title, Dr. Horrible and Other Stories (Dark Horse Books), is a collection of comics based on the web serial Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog written by Zack Whedon, and drawn by a variety of artists, including Jim Rugg and Joëlle Jones. This selection is a follow-up to my June column on licensed comics (‘Freeze Frame: How Best to Capture Film in a Comic Book?’, “Worlds in Panels”, PopMatters, 8 June 2010), and is an example both of the limitations of these kinds of books and also how they can be done well.

The stories all expand on the nature and origins of the characters in the web serial. The principals – Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible, and Penny – all get their own chapters, and attention is also given to supporting players Moist and the Evil League of Evil. And, on the margins, are entirely new superheroes and potential villains. The comics here are an organic extension of the original series, not a replication. Most importantly, the art is used to accentuate certain qualities of the characters, whether Penny’s earnestness or Dr. Horrible’s underlying vulnerability. Each of the artists actively interprets the characters rather than simply trying to make them look like their live action referents, and as a result, the comics versions take on lives of their own as well as offering new insights into the originals.

At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who hasn’t seen, and enjoyed, the web serial getting much out of this book. In general, I think that the best licensed comics are those that are written for fans of a given ‘property’, rather than ones that simply seek to leverage a recognizable name for additional profit. I can enjoy this collection, but not feel as if I can recommend it to just anyone. I suspect that to those who haven’t seen Sing-Along Blog, these stories may seem banal or confusing or goofy. This sense is heightened by the brevity of the chapters, which average about seven pages apiece. This comic is meant to be read in a particular context, which necessarily limits its appeal, but heightens its value for those who are already familiar with the source material.

On the other side of the transmedia landscape is Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour. The film adaptation of the series, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, was a key date on many a geek’s calendar last year, and most of that grew from love of the books. I have previously examined the debate over the film’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’ (‘‘Scott Pilgrim’ and What Movies Mean to Comics‘, “Worlds in Panels”, PopMatters, 30 August 2010), but in mentioning the sixth book here, I’m interested primarily in the role that comics play in media convergence, and how storyworlds can grow and stretch, and morph, when taken from one medium to another.

One of the obvious things to note is that the movie condenses six books and over a thousand pages of text and images into a story that runs less than two hours. In considering the results of this adaptation, it is interesting to note both what is left in and what gets left out or truncated from the books.

The final book was being written more or less simultaneously as the film was being made, and one key difference is the role that Ramona Flowers gets to play in each. She is, without question, a more active figure in the books and in the final showdown with Gideon than she is in the movie, where she is, literally, sidelined. The film focuses on Scott’s journey, while the books are, in the end, about Scott and Ramona’s journey, both together and as individuals.

This difference between movie and comic highlights the issue of gender for different media, and also explains why I am mentioning Chris Roberson’s and Shawn McManus’s Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love here.

While American comics have been and remain a (heterosexual white) male dominated medium, it is also a marginal form, and, as such, is often home to stories and characters that have a harder time finding expression elsewhere. I have addressed the gendered nature of comics, especially mainstream comics, in a number of columns, most recently last month (‘From Pin-Ups to Ass-Kickers: Girls in Comics Go Through Transitions‘, “Worlds in Panels”, PopMatters, 16 November 2010), but as much as one can be occupied by pointing out the ways in which women are routinely objectified in comics, or reduced to supporting roles and background, there are more women who get written as leading characters, as action heroes, as active agents, as complicated people in their own right, and not just in relationship to men, in comics than there are in currently in American film and television.

Cindy, Cinderella in the Fables series, and Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim are just two of many female characters in comics who are either title characters or vitally important to someone else’s story. Years can go by in film and television before a female-led series or movie will get made, especially in genres like action, spy or superhero.

From Fabletown with Love also treats its hero with respect. Cindy is drawn very much like the female James Bond suggested by the title; tough, sexy, but always aware that she has a job to do, and a need to be taken seriously in that job. In fact, Cindy uses people’s prejudices about young, blonde, and wealthy girls/women to her advantage in creating her cover identity. Angelina Jolie recently expressed an interest in at least the idea of being James Bond. This will likely never happen in the movies. In comics, effectively, it already has, many times over.

Gender and sexuality, and transgression of cultural boundaries, is a major part of the appeal to writer Gail Simone’s Secret Six series. Simone has built her title around an ensemble of characters who are marginal in multiple senses: their roles within the DC universe, their positions as heroes and villains, their sexuality, their gender identities, their relationships to each other. However, the collection I read most recently, Depths, traces a narrative arc in which the group has to confront their own feelings about who they are and who they want to be in relationship to their feelings of marginality. In the end, they collectively, though not without in-fighting and self-doubt, decide that their cause lies more with fellow freaks than with brutal dictators, even when they are getting paid.

The theme of marginality also informs Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, a work of comics journalism about Katrina and its aftermath.

I don’t think that Neufeld breaks new ground in the use of comics for creative non-fiction or comics journalism. Neufeld’s story is constructed from interviews with seven people who experienced the hurricane and the flood from different vantage points, in the city, on the road, and from different race and class positions. Like HBO’s Treme, Neufeld covers a wide range of characters without turning his story into a socially mushy one about how everyone in New Orleans is somehow equal, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or immigration status, in their choices for how to move through and beyond an experience like Katrina. His book also shows the power of comics to represent the world in a concentrated way, to use comics art to build a compelling world from a few key details – buildings, water, people – bringing his subjects’ stories into clear relief.

Brian Wood’s Vertigo series DMZ isn’t ‘real’ reportage, but it reads like a journalistic document, one about an alternate future where the United States is broken into opposing armies at stalemate in Manhattan. DMZ is always effective in raising questions about American power and the country’s position in the world, the nature of freedom, and what it means to live under conditions of war, especially a war that has been imposed on you and your place. The most recent collection, volume eight, Hearts and Minds, begins with a close examination of the conditions in which an individual might be recruited and trained as a suicide bomber, and ends with a story about the series’ lead character, reporter Matty Roth, and the hubris of power and degree of faith one should place in anyone promising a better world. Like Cinderella and Secret Six, DMZ continues to exemplify the space that comics provides to tell stories that would be hard to tell in other media, dismissed as too radical or too complicated or too concerned with characters who aren’t part of the mainstream.

Where the lead selections on this list look at comics as belonging to transmedia storyworlds, and the subsequent selections consider the narrative possibilities of comics relative to different cultures of media production, my final selection, Kieron Gillen’s and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, is about the uniqueness of comics.

In many ways, it isn’t hard to imagine Gillen’s and McKelvie’s stories about music and magic, and young, pretty people, being effectively adapted to film or TV, but near the end of the final chapter of the latest volume is a turn of the page that delivers, on first time at least, a moment of beauty and wonder that could not be replicated in those other forms. This is not the same as suggesting that there are not equally arresting ways to handle the same moment on film or television, only that it would be intrinsically different than it is in the comic. In the comic, what you see is dependent on the act of having turned the page, on the active participation of the reader in moving the narrative along, and of having the freedom to linger on the surprise and delight you get from that participation.

In one way or another, what my selections here have in common is what they can tell you about how stories are told in comics, and how the medium benefits from being a subcultural or marginal form of narrative art. Whereas a book like Dr. Horrible is interesting for how comics can be used to expand on a storyworld originally built for another medium, and a book like DMZ: Hearts and Minds highlights the kinds of stories that are told in comics not so much for any inherent quality, but as a result of where the form fits into the larger culture, The Singles Club, at least for a couple of pages, highlights the artistic possibilities that set comics apart from other media.