State of the (Graphic) Art: The Year in Graphic Novels So Far

We’re a quarter of the way through 2012 and the Science Fiction/Fantasy comic book landscape has certainly changed since last year. While long-form mainstays like Fables, Elephantmen, Hellboy/BPRD, and Conan continue in peak form, there are a number of quality genre books out that do not require knowledge of baggage-laden continuities. There are also genuine SF titles coming into their own, and some well-handled licensed properties currently gracing the comics racks.

Last year saw the incredibly talented Nate Simpson release Nonplayer #1, a beautifully drawn book about augmented reality and MMORPGs. It made such an impact that the film rights were optioned almost immediately. Unfortunately we have yet to see a second issue, but in recent weeks a couple books have make a similar splash…

First off is Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and Fiona Staples. This is an interstellar fantasy about lovers from warring races who secretly marry and have a child. This sets into motion all manner of schemes to destroy them. One issue has come out so far and it was excellent. It is very similar in tone to the under-appreciated Manifest Eternity from a few years back, only with more punch, romance, and wit.

Jonathan Hickman has produced a series of quirky mini-series, including last year’s dazzling time travel comic The Red Wing. He follows that up with The Manhattan Projects drawn by Nick Pittara, which imagines Robert Oppenheimer being drafted into a WWII program of super science weaponry. There are shades of both Buffy and Warehouse 13 in the DNA of this book, and I look forward to seeing where it is going.

Also currently running is Joe Benitez’ Lady Mechanika, a gloriously-drawn steampunk tale about a cyborg adventuress who proves pneumatics can be sexy. This is riveting eye-candy, but be warned, the gap between issues can last several months.

Prophet is an SF relaunch of a ridiculous Rob Liefeld comic. Brandon Graham and Simon Roy awaken the title character on a very strange future Earth populated with dangerous life forms and send him on a quest to discover a truth that will affect the galaxy. It has cool bio-technology and some well-drafted beasties.

Dark Matter starts with the crew of a derelict ship waking from cryo-sleep with no memories of who they are, or why the ship approaching them has hostile intentions. There are a lot of familiar (and perhaps overused) tropes here, with some scenes transparently influenced by Alien and Event Horizon. The book also telegraphs the rather obvious fact that Something Is Very Wrong Here a little too much, which is a shamed because the mystery at the root of it is pretty original and the clichés cheapen it.

Author Chris Roberson has three books of note to mention. First off is the creepy Memorial from IDW which has a classic Vertigo Comics feel to it. It’s about an amnesiac girl who encounters a curiosity shop with ties to other mysterious worlds. Then there is Elric: The Balance Lost, a multiversal love letter to the various sandboxes that Michael Moorcock built for the Eternal Champion. If that isn’t enough, it features insane scenes like this, this, and this. Lastly, there is the unlikely crossover of Star Trek/Legion of Superheroes. This book amalgamates both franchises from a time before their recent reboots, plays with the parallels and differences between the properties, and has enough scenes with Spock and Brainiac V together to satisfy even the most demanding fan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the current IDW iteration of the comic takes the interesting approach of retelling Original Series episodes in the rebooted movie universe. I read the first few, and it is a clever idea, just not my cup of tea.

There are three, count ‘em, three Star Wars comics currently on my Must Read list. Nobody was more surprised than me by this fact. First off is John Ostrander’s Agent of the Empire: Iron Eclipse, which tells the thrilling adventures of dashing imperial spy Jahan Cross as he tries to uncover a conspiracy which threatens galactic civilization. Yes, it is James Bond in the Star Wars universe, complete with his own M and Q. It has appearances by some established characters, uses parts of Star Wars history in clever ways, and features a buxom killer robot sidekick. This is sheer fun escapism on all cylinders. Crimson Empire III: Empire Lost is a significantly darker book, following Leia, Han, Luke, and their allies as the New Republic struggles against the resurgence of the Empire. Paul Gulacy’s art alone is worth the purchase. As the title suggest this is the third series of this story, but the previous two are available in collections. We go from the post-trilogy future to the very distant past for Dawn of the Jedi, recounting the mysterious origins of the order and the first attempts to destroy them. It brings a mythic dimension to the history of the franchise. And who knew that rancors used to have wings? Dark Horse Comics deserves a lot of credit for their handling of the expanded Star Wars universe, and the fact that three such diverse books can consistently deliver the goods so well is evidence of that.

Boom StudiosPlanet of the Apes also covers some hidden history as it tells the tale of how the alliance of humans and apes at the end of the original movies series collapsed into a violent war. It builds and maintains Game of Thrones-level intrigue, betrayal, subterfuge, and vengeance. Plus it has airships. This is a impressive exploration of the canon’s back-story.

The ongoing Hellraiser book is from Boom as well, and tells a chilling continuation of the original story as Pinhead seeks to return to the land of the living and Kirsty tries to stop him. Clive Barker is overseeing this project. It brings many new factors to the Hellraiser canon while preserving the themes of dark desire and redemption that made the original so compelling. And, yes, it has many eviscerations.

Flash Gordon Zeitgeist has been gaining some traction, in no small part because Alex Ross is handling the art design. It’s a valiant attempt to harvest the best parts of the Filmation animated series, the movie, and the classic Al Williamson strip. It is nicely done, but doesn’t add anything new to the story for me. Given the failed versions that have come out recently I just think the property needs a rest. But it is a gorgeous book, and your mileage may vary.

And lastly we set out sites to the east where Godzilla comics are having an entertaining resurgence thanks to IDW. I highly recommend Gangsters and Goliaths, which has the Yakuza kidnapping the Mothra twins and using kaiju as weapons in a turf war. The art can be lacking in some of these books, but they’re fun, exciting, and bring in just about every obscure creature that Toho ever created.

In the next few months we will be assimilated by the historic Star Trek: TNG/Doctor Who crossover, not to mention the Grant Morrison/Barry Sonnenfeld collaboration Dinosaurs vs Aliens, the return of Mars Attacks, the Garth Ennis relaunch of The Shadow, and, for some unfathomable reason, Marvel’s reimagining of the Punisher in space.

And don’t forget Free Comic Book Day is May 5.

5 thoughts on “State of the (Graphic) Art: The Year in Graphic Novels So Far”

  1. I can’t get enthused for Saga. Those main characters look goofy, and after the ending of Y: the Last Man, I’m afraid to invest in another long running series from Vaughan. (Then again, this is an SF comic, so it’ll probably be canceled in a couple of months. *sigh*)

    The new Flash Gordon, comic, though, that looks awesome. *fingers crossed* I loved that Filmation cartoon when I was a kid. (Well, up until they “reimagined” it for the second season and ruined the whole thing.)

  2. I tried Saga, but it just didn’t work for me. The politicizing was even more ham-handed than in Y & Ex Machina, both comics I enjoyed, but which also had the ending problem Mantar brought up.

    The most promising current titles in my opinion are Morning Glories, which has a kind of Prisoner vibe to it, and Rachel Rising by Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), which is only a few issues in but looks to be one of the most interesting horror comics in a while.

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