Nonfiction: "Comics: 2000" by Seth Johnson
(from The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourteenth Annual Collection,
St. Martin's Press, 2001)

Comics 2000
Seth Johnson

Another year has passsed, and I’ve gone to the comic shop each and every of those 52 weeks in search of the best. Let’s take a trip down the the racks:

Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson (Vertigo/DC). Following the limited ongoing series format pioneered in the Vertigo line by Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, this politically hip science fiction novel-in-progress is a surprise each and every month—it just keeps getting better and better.

Bone by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books), Walt Kelly’s Pogo mixed with equal doses of Tolkien and the Marx Brothers. You’ll keep turning the pages as you laugh, and keep picking up new issues as an emotional, epic fantasy novel unfolds.

Akiko by Mark Crilley (Sirius). The adventures of an eight-year-old girl and her friends as they travel from one fantastic alien world to another, it’s still the best comic you can buy to introduce kids to the magic of comics.

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon Press). Though some of the material was first printed in Ware’s irregular series from Fantagraphics, The Acme Novelty Library, this incredible hardcover collection hit bookstores across the country in the fall. Following the story of Jimmy Corrigan’s reunion with his long-lost father, the book is certain to win Ware many new fans for his incredibly exquisite and detailed work--even the dust jacket unfolds to reveal intricate diagrams and one of Ware’s infamous cut-and-tape model kits.

Preacher by Garth Ennis and Glenn Fabry (Vertigo/DC.) This series came to an end in late 2000, and months later the debate still rages: was it a modern fantasy wrapped around an exploration of religion? Was it a western, with serial killers and vampires tossed in for fun? Was it a stab at the Great American Novel in comic-book form? Perhaps it was all of the above—but it was a damn fine read.

All of the above comics have been mentioned year after year in this column—because they’re some of the best. Even if you don’t know where your local comic book store is, all of the above have won enough fans that their publishers have collected them into trade paperback form and they can be found in mainstream bookstores. Pick one up sometime—while you might be surprised, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Okay, enough of this column’s regulars. Let’s take a look at some fresh material.

First up, another book that you’ll find in bookstores is The Sandman Companion (Vertigo/DC), Hy Bender’s in-depth guide to the aforementioned and incredibly popular comic series written by Neil Gaiman. Bender discusses the entirety of the series with Gaiman, uncovering both hidden gems and the in-depth stories behind what might have seemed obvious, and combined with a wealth of Sandman eccletica it is an essential read for any fan of the series.

For a long time I’ve been a fan of Tony Millionaire’s Maakies, a surreal comic strip printed in alternative newspapers around the nation. But Millionaire (and yes, that is his real name) is finally breaking across to a wider audience with his comic from Dark Horse Comics, The Adventures of Sock Monkey, where model ships sail around a Victorian mansion and drunken toy crows help hunt down teacup-stealing pixies. It’s a surreal world, like Toy Story on a steady dose of gin, but one lent a strange authenticity by Millionaire’s expertly rendered work.

Dark Horse has also been wise enough to reintroduce Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub to American audiences via a 22-volume collection reprinting the entirety of the series in a Japanese digest-sized but English-translated format. It hardly qualifies as “fresh material”, but hopefully the reprints will bring new fans to the series, a popular Japanese import for more than twenty years.

Between his work writing for various animated programs and his popular Milk and Cheese strips, cartoonist Evan Dorkin somehow finds time to put out the occasional issue of Dork!, published just as occasionally—but thankfully kept in print—by Slave Labor Graphics. There are a lot of autobiographical comics out there, but few so clearly show someone balancing atop the razor-thin wall between comedy and pathos.

I mentioned Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan above, but there are several other Ellis projects worthy of note. City of Silence (Image), with art by Gary Irskine, shows a strong relationship to Transmetropolitan but abandons political satire for a wicked exploration of man’s relationship with technology. The majority of Lazarus Churchyard: The Final Cut (Image) was published long ago in various British comics magazines, but has been long unavailable; this collection collects together the entire story of the suicidal immortal with a brand new story by Ellis and Churchyard artist D’Israeli. Planetary (Wildstorm) is an exploration of the entirety of popular fiction by Ellis and John Cassaday--successive issues slip from genre to genre but are slowly weaving together the strands of a much larger story.

Of course, Alan Moore has been rexploring everything from comics history to the occult for decades, and he continues to do so in his “America’s Best Comics” line. But the cream of the crop are Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where Captain Nemo is teamed with Mina Murray, Allan Quartermain, Dr. Jeckyll and the Invisible Man to defeat the evil schemes of Fu Manchu, and Promethea, where J.H. Williams ably illustrates Moore’s exploration of the very nature of myth, imagination, and magic.

Many other writers are also exploring familiar themes in some terrific comics, twisting them through a variety of lenses:

The Authority (a Wildstorm title created by Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary but since taken over by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely) pushes the bounds of what humanity might allow of superhuman vigilantes, as a team of ultra-powered heroes slowly reshape the planet—by any means necessary, a method rightfully questioned in Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke’s Action Comics #775 (DC), “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Truth, Justice and the American Way?,” where Superman encounters a very Authority-like team.

Popular crime comics writer Brian Michael Bendis has paired with artist Michael Avon Oeming to create Powers (Image), following the cases of human police detectives in a comic-book world. Alan Moore, as usual, pushes that theme to an even greater extreme in Top 10 (America’s Best Comics, art by Gene Ha), where not only the cops but every single citizen in an enormous metropolis have superhuman powers.

The Marquis: Danse Macabre (Oni Press), by Guy Davis uses all of the trappings of superheroics—a costume, a secret identity, high-tech mystical gadgetry—to tell the story of a demon-hunting priest in 17th century France. Conspiring with comics legend Stan Lee to create a “long-lost hero of 1950s’ comics”, Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee uncovered the tale of The Sentry (Marvel) the hero so powerful everyone had to forget he ever existed.

Thunderbolts (Marvel) by Fabien Nicieza and Mark Bagley continues to tell the tale of a group of former supervillians in their attempts to go straight, while Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s Empire (Gorilla/Image) tells the story of what happens after a megalomanical supervillain succeeds in his scheme to take over the world.

All plumbing the mysteries of the unknown are Karl Kessel and Tom Grummett’s Section Zero (Gorilla/Image), Tony Harris and Dusty Abell’s Lazarus 5 (DC), and Phil Amara and Guy Davis’ The Nevermen (Dark Horse Comics), though each has their own twist; “Section Zero” is a government-sanctioned superhero team, the Lazarus 5 an underground cabal of occult investigators, and the Nevermen a group of two-fisted mystery men wandering a city of twisted pulp adventure.

One more must-read before we close: in 1993 Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics (Tundra Press, recently reprinted by Kitchen Sink Press), an attempt to deconstruct and define comics as an art form that has sparked neverending debate. In 2000 McCloud returned with Reinventing Comics (Paradox/DC), a look at comics as an industry, exploring how the creators, the audience, and the medium might evolve in the near future. It’s a less scholarly and more opinionated work, and sure to spark even more debates, but definitely worthwhile reading.

If you’re looking for any of the above titles, along with a lot of other great material they should be available at your local comic shop. If you don’t frequent a shop, you can find one by checking your Yellow Pages or calling the Comic Shop Locator Service at 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.

Thanks to Westfield’s Comics in Madison, Wisconsin and the fine folks at FM International Distributors for their help in research and collecting materials for this year’s essay.