2012 In Review: 5 Great Comics We Haven't Told You About Already Our comics bloggers shines a spotlight on his 5 favorite ongoing comics series, including an apocalyptic eco-thriller, a swooning space opera, and a smart, witty superhero book for people who hate superheroes.
NPR logo 2012 In Review: 5 Great Comics We Haven't Told You About Already

2012 In Review: 5 Great Comics We Haven't Told You About Already

Y'know what your average critic's end-of-year list lacks? Novelty.

Which I mean, duh. Of course. The idea is to winnow the many things we've discussed with readers over the course of the year and say, here's the best of the best. It is meant to be a reflection, a rumination, on what has come — and been written about — before. Year IN REVIEW, after all.

But you know what? Screw that.

The medium of comics is too broad, and there are too many good books I haven't gotten a chance to single out, to spend precious year-end pixels figuring out new ways to say "This book I reviewed back in April? 'Member that book? Yep, still good."

(Oh, okay, FINE. Of all the comics/graphic novels/graphic memoirs/whatever we're calling them this week I or others have reviewed on NPR over the past year, I do have particular favorites. These include many books that are turning up on a lot of year-end lists (Building Stories, Sailor Twain, The Underwater Welder, Drama, Saga, The Hypo, Marbles, Are You My Mother) and some that aren't but should (God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls, Wonder Woman, Crackle of the Frost, Little White Duck, Gloriana).)

Go back and read what I and other folks here at NPR have said about those books. Know that it's all still true, and if you're looking for a gift, or just a good book to curl up with as the 21st century leaves its tween years behind, those are all great choices.

But here's a list of my favorite books of 2012 that I love but have not yet had a chance to hector you into reading.

First up: Ongoing comics series. Next time: Graphic novels.

2012 In Review: 5 Great Comics We Haven't Told You About Already

  • Hawkeye

    Hawkeye #1 Marvel Comics hide caption

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    Marvel Comics

    You know. From the Avengers movie? Shoots arrows at folk? Yeah, that Hawkeye. Writer Matt Fraction and artists David Aja and Javier Pulido (who trade off storyarcs) are creating something special here: a superhero comic for readers who've sworn off superhero comics - a lean, taut, great-looking and bracingly funny examination of what a hero does with his downtime. Every page is a master class in skillful, economic comics storytelling that just so happens to neatly dispense with the superhero comic's traditional barriers-to-entry. Street-level adventures take place over the course of a single issue or two, without dense backstory, crossovers, super-powers, or even, in point of fact, costumes.

    Fraction's Clint Barton is just a guy who can't seem to stop himself from doing the right thing even when it means tangling with gangsters, government conspiracies or even — shudder — bad landlords. The first trade paperback collection, Hawkeye Vol. I: My Life as a Weapon, doesn't come out till March, but the individual issues have already gone through several printings and should be easy to find in comics shops. If you've got a tablet, you can download them via the Marvel or Comixology app. So, you know: Do that.

  • Prophet

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    Image Comics

    Prophet Vol. I: Remission

    Image Comics

    Back in the benighted 90s, the superhero Prophet was but one of a teeming, mass of generically grim, gritty and dull heroes that infested comics racks like so many steroidal, dyspeptic cockroaches. Now writer Brandon Graham (whose weird and wonderful series King City is worth checking out) has repurposed the character and — with a roster of different artists, including himself — set him loose upon the far distant future, where a ruined Earth has been overrun by aliens.

    I've mentioned my love of the hugely popular Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples series Saga before. If that book is, as many have called it, a "space opera", then it's one that's all recitative, as its true heart lies in Vaughan's dialogue, and the tender, nuanced and fully realized relationship of its two heroes. Prophet, on the other hand, is a space opera composed entirely of swooning, full-throated, spear-and-magic-helmet arias. Graham's and his artists render big, weird, and disconcertingly squishy ideas in imagery that ranges from breathtakingly gorgeous to psychologically terrifying. This is an ambitious, bloody, visionary (though as yet narratively abstruse) work that defies tidy classification. Just check it out. The first collection, Prophet Vol. I: Remission is available now.

  • The Massive

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    Dark Horse

    The Massive #1

    Dark Horse

    Any post-apocalyptic tale is at its heart a cautionary one. Many, in fact, come steeped in a fog of authorial smugness: We Went Wrong, the writer posits, And Here's Why, And Look Where It Got Us. It's the "Your Face is Gonna Freeze Like That!" of contemporary literature.

    Which is a big reason why the Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson eco-thriller series The Massive feels so refreshing. Instead of posturing, Wood lets a very small, very human question drive the action: What now?

    More specifically: What happens to a group of environmental activists when they find that their battle has been utterly lost? What do they do with themselves?

    As the crew of the conservation ship Kapital attempts to locate their sister ship in the wake of a worldwide environmental crash, we watch them struggle with the aftermath of ideology, as they are forced to transition from fighting for a cause to fighting for their lives. Big ideas and even bigger emotions roil on the page, and Donaldson's vistas of ruined oil rigs and flooded cities seem chillingly familiar and nearer to hand than we might care to admit. The first collection: The Massive Vol I: Black Pacific, will be published in April.

  • Batgirl

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    DC Comics

    Writer Gail Simone has been writing Barbara Gordon for years — even if most of those were spent chronicling the character's civilian identity as resident computer hacker for the DC Universe's hero community. The recent editorial decision to put Babs back in the bat-tights was a controversial one, given the fact that the character has, for more than two decades, been paralyzed from the waist down — and had become a role model in the process.

    Other writers might have waved such concerns away and plunged ahead, content to let the "New 52" universe-wide reboot work its magic ("She got better!"). But the affinity Simone has with the character is palpable, and she took care to ground Babs' recovery in the real. Feelings of joy and gratitude shaded believably into guilt and doubt. As is the general wont of those who dress up to fight crime, she kicked her fair share of butt, even as her own butt got well and truly kicked. And she always got back up. Because that is what heroes do.

    In Simone's hands, the book has embraced the key element that sets Batgirl apart from Batman: He sulks, she exults. No matter how grim Gotham City gets, Babs provides a spark of life, serving as a much-needed reminder that superhero comics are supposed to be fun to read.

    Last month, for reasons that continue to confound and mystify, a new editorial regime kicked Simone of the book. That monumentally stupid decision has since been rescinded, and she's back on the comic she was born to write. You can find the first few issues collected in Batgirl Vol. I: The Darkest Reflection, and Vol. II: Knightfall Descends, is due in February.

  • Manhattan Projects

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    Image Comics

    Manhattan Projects Vol I: Science. Bad.

    Image Comics

    In this Jonathan Hickman/Nick Pitarra series, the effort to build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos is merely a front for a series of altogether weirder scientific and quasi-scientific pursuits. To say just how weird things get would spoil the book's singularly twisty — and frequently twisted — charms. Multiple universes, aliens, evil twins, and government conspiracies abound, invigorated by Hickman's nasty sense of humor and Pitarra's wide-panel aesthetic; imagine Lovecraft in Cinerama.

    Hickman and Pitarra toss out more wildly inventive ideas per page than anyone this side of Grant Morrison, loading the book up with background detail and design elements that deepen and complicate their characterizations (pay attention, for example, to how they employ the color red throughout). The first few issues have been collected in Manhattan Projects Vol. I: Science. Bad. If the books on your bedside table suffer from a decided dearth of evil planet-conquering radioactive scientists, pick this book up.