Twenty-two pages fills up fast. There’s no denying that. Action sequences often eat up huge chunks of a book, and you can only fit so much dialogue on the page before it becomes cluttered, not to mention how much of the probably excellent art you’ll be covering up by doing so. So, understandably, most writers will have their stories run in arcs, often using well over 100 pages to let it unfold. It’s not hard to see why, but the tendency to keep expanding the story is part of what makes it so rewarding when you come across a single issue that manages to not only exemplify what it is you so love about that particular book, or even comics in general, but that manages to do so with an impressive economy of storytelling. One Shot is meant to take a close look at why those issues work as well as they do, the way they do.
Arkham Reborn #1 (of 3)
With the popularity of the absolutely stellar Batman: Arkham Asylum and the recent relaunch of the Bat-franchise, it should come as no surprise that Gotham’s infamous Arkham Asylum would get its own miniseries. After the mass breakout from the Asylum and subsequent explosion, Jeremiah Arkham, ancestor of the Asylum’s original designer, has taken it upon himself to continue the grand, bumbling legacy of the world’s only criminal institution with a revolving door.
Hine does a good job building the book slowly, despite the fact that the entire mini-series is only three issues long. Here we meet Arkham’s new staff, specifically Jeremiah Arkham, who believes in curing Gotham’s madmen with love and respect; Alyce Sinner, sole survivor of a massive suicide cult and expert on the criminally insane; and Aaron Cash, now Arkham’s head of security and one of the tragic figures to come out of Dan Slott’s excellent Arkham Asylum: Living Hell. Jeremiah has met with some small success in his bid to rehabilitate, but we know that the laws of comic book storytelling says that that can’t last – Dr. Sinner soon betrays him, revealing the Asylum’s dark, heinous underbelly in a bid to keep things crazy.
There’s nothing unpredictable here, but Hine does a good job setting the mood and introducing everyone, while artist Jeremy Haun turns in excellent work on all fronts, designing a few new characters and an all-new Arkham and still managing to craft a few extremely memorable images. The pair seem well-suited, and while it seems that the entire mini’s purpose is to keep Arkham Asylum the same hellhole it has been these past few years, at least they seem to be having plenty of fun with it.
Detective Comics #858
Years after the character was introduced and months into her first solo title, “Go” marks our first foray into the origins of Kate Kane. Growing up moving from military base to military base, Kate and Beth Kane really only had each other growing up. A few issues back, it was hinted that something bad happened to her growing up, and now we see what that is: after earning a post in France, Mrs. Kane, Kate and Beth were kidnapped by terrorists during a security alert. While Kate couldn’t see what was happening to her mother and sister, the aftermath certainly left an impression.
Rucka’s storytelling is far more solid here than in the previous arc, perhaps due to the shortened arc’s tighter focus. Whatever the reason, the issue provides a quick, tragic glimpse of an origin that didn’t go at all where I thought it would, and was wrapped up in a single issue, leaving next month for the fallout. J.H. Williams III makes an abrupt shift in style for the bulk of the issue, giving the flashback to Kate’s youth a vastly more structured layout and color-palette. The contrast between the two time-periods is gorgeous and memorable, once again suggesting Williams as one of comics’ top talents.
The Question back-up finally wrapped up its opening arc with this issue. The lack of room the story had, confined as it was to these back pages, took away from some of the suspense the story might’ve had if it had had more room to build up an atmosphere or throw us a plot twist or two, but it has nonetheless remained a consistently entertaining action comic, thanks in part to Rucka’s collaborator, Cully Hamner, whose layouts and art make it a joy to watch Renee in motion.
Between the issue’s two parts, Detective Comics features a pair of artists at the top of their games, anchored by strong writing of two fascinating new heroines. It’s well-worth your time.
Astro City: Astra Special #2 (of 2)
Astro City: Astra Special concludes on a high note. Anyone who has graduated college can relate to what Astra is going through as she continues to tell her boyfriend Matthew about the increasingly bizarre possibilities open to a young woman of her immense talents. From mundane jobs with research institutes on Earth to a chance to untie, one world at a time, a series of realities knotted together by a madman’s destructive last act, Astra has, for the first time in her life, no idea what to do next.
While the other part of the book will probably resonate less with others, using a now-grown child heroine to look at and condemn our deranged obsession with celebrity culture largely works. Though there are a few painful, relatively clunky moments, Busiek works hard to keep the emotions honest and keep it all part of Astra’s story.
Astro City: Astra Special combines Jack Kirby’s flare for bizarre cosmic world-building with a more grounded, human story. Anderson’s pencils are much improved when he’s dealing with these larger-than-life concepts, and together the pair brings us a small-in-scope, massive-in-scale story about the pains of growing up. It isn’t the most memorable Astro City story, but it’s honest and entertaining, and continues to flesh out the best setting in comics.
Blackest Night: Superman #3 (of 3)
Blackest Night: Superman, which started out so much vastly stronger than the other “Blackest Night” related books, ends here more with a whimper than with a bang. The book does have some interesting revelations about the weaknesses of the Black Lanterns, as well as an explanation for what New Krypton is up to throughout the event, but it amounts to little more than that, in the end.
Despite its failure to live up to its own eerie opening issue, Blackest Night: Superman #3 nonetheless offered solid action illustrated by Eddie Barrows doing what he’s most comfortable doing, with (perhaps sadly) the best writing Robinson’s been doing, lately. Robinson continues to use the emotional spectrum’s color-coding to vastly more effect than the main mini to give us a neat, inside peak into the characters heads in otherwise wordless scenes, a trick that works especially well with Psycho Pirate in the mix. Ultimately, Blackest Night: Superman isn’t bad. It’s just forgettable.
– Cal Cleary
Detective Comics #857
So, you all have been doing your top 10 monthly books, and I feel bad, because I don’t read 10 monthly books! Sadly, I can’t afford it. I read Final Crisis, most of the Final Crisis tie-ins, and 4-5 monthlies, and when FC ends, I’ll jump on another few books, preferably minis, but until then…I really can’t join the fun, there.
Instead, I decided to think about ten books that deserve some love. Most of them are done already, and while they’re pretty good, you may not have had a chance to check ‘em out, yet. No Sandman, Preacher, Watchmen, etc…here, but instead a selection of enjoyable books that I find most comic fans have never read.
10. The Book of Lost Souls
JMS can be a fairly controversial writer, and often an unpopular one. I know that I’m not really a very big fan of his mainstream work, or what little of it I’ve read thus far. And The Book of Lost Souls is a fairly large vanity project – a weighty series with excessive high school level symbolism with an effeminate hero and a bizarre mythology
Despite all that, though, this seems to be where JMS most shines. There’s no editorial mandate, no continuity – just a palate for ideas, where nothing is really off the table. Not everything sticks, especially the completely forgettable last issue, but the book remains a sweet, emotional book with more of a focus on healing than on hurting, which is a rare sight in comics.
9. Global Frequency
The premise behind Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency is irredeemably sci-fi, and falls apart at the barest prods, but it’s less a plot and more a structure through which Ellis is free to examine sci-fi tropes in comics. Each issue is a stand-alone sci-fi story about one or more member of the Global Frequency, a world-wide organization of specialists who trouble-shoot the bizarre problems that are popping up as we gain more and more access to technology.
The stories in the two trades range from an issue-long battle between two cannibal martial artists (in an issue helpfully titled ‘Ultraviolence’) to a memetic alien invasion, to bio-terrorist threats. Some issues are action packed, while others are more thoughtful. But all throughout, Ellis’s ability to keep the story contained lends it a clarity that many books lack. Far and above one of the best purely sci-fi books you can find, especially if you generally appreciate Ellis’s work – this is one of his best works.
Alan Moore made his name in comics a LONG time ago, writing some of the most enduring stories the medium has ever known, with a wide-stream appeal the medium may never know again. Also, he’s crazy. And while sometimes that madness manifests in angry rants and snake worshipping cult magic, sometimes it manifests in a book like Promethea, a modern magical manifesto, an exploration of all things mystic.
Yeah, Moore has done plenty since leaving Marvel and DC – on top of Promethea, he has the excellent Tom Strong and Top 10, and Top 10 especially is worth checking out – but Promethea stands out to me as the most uniquely Alan Moore project we’ve seen in years. It’s a fascinating blend of adventure, mysticism, and coming of age, and through the book Moore almost off-handedly creates a vivacious super-heroic setting.
It’s understandable why Promethea doesn’t have a huge audience – with some issues done entirely in rhyme, and some taking place literally entirely in metaphor, the series requires you to put some effort in to it. But if you do, and if you enjoy a healthy dose of bizarre mysticism, you should definitely read Promethea.
7. Crossing Midnight
Crossing Midnight was all set up to be Mike Carey’s next big Vertigo smash. It had Japanese mythology, insane battles, monsters, everything – but it opened slow, and Vertigo books can’t do that, nowadays. Readership dropped, and things fell apart. Don’t let its quick cancellation fool you, though – Crossing Midnight was one of Vertigo’s best titles, and despite the fact that it didn’t live long, it definitely deserves a read-through if you have any interest in Japanese mythology, or in stories of mortal pawns in a war of the gods.
Crossing Midnight tells the story of a pair of twins. One was born just before midnight, the other, just after. This separation defines their relationship, as one grows up a perfectly normal young boy, and the other grows into a wildchild, especially once she learns that she cannot be cut or stabbed, for reasons unknown to her – the blade will slide away, or bend, but will never hurt.
The machinations of the gods are, of course, involved, and Carey does an excellent job of slowly introducing more and more mythological elements into the world these two seemingly ordinary Tokyo children live in, until they’re almost irrevocably swamped in it it. Definitely a must read for fans of mythology, or of good urban fantasy story-telling in general.
Brubaker gets a lot of nods here in this list, because a lot of his projects are quality books that get cut because they don’t meet the standard superhero mold, and Criminal is no exception. While it has managed to scratch out a second season, things don’t look hopeful unless readership picks up – and the book definitely deserves to get picked up.
Featuring a rotating cast in VERY loosely tied-together arcs, the stories in Criminal are all about…well, criminals. From thugs to master planners, each arc is an excellent, small noir piece. There are no super-humans, there are no costumes. There are just bad men, and men put in bad places. But the characters Brubaker creates are realistic, the situations they get into are plausible, and it’s frankly a joy to read such carefully crafted stories of greed and vengeance in a medium that often treats such topics in a laughably juvenile manner.
5. Gotham Central
Gotham Central has a premise that should be fairly irresistible: what’s life like for the cops of Gotham City? What is it like to deal with people like Two-Face, the Joker, and Mr. Freeze on a daily basis? After all, you don’t have the billions of dollars worth of gadgets, or the decades of training, that Batman does, so just how can you show up to work, knowing what you could face down?
With excellent art my Michael Lark, Brubaker and Rucka team up to answer those questions, and to introduce you to some of the DCU’s bravest characters. The story fleshes out a great (never used) supporting cast for Batman, but it also does a lot for the bad guys of Gotham – the Two-Face arc is great, especially the (admittedly not originating in Gotham Central) first meeting between Renee Montoya and Two-Face during No Man’s Land.
Gotham Central wasn’t a book for everyone, and ultimately it had a good run, but it’s still a book that you should definitely check out if you have any interest in Gotham City OR in crime dramas.
Ed Brubaker has long since made his reputation as a master of comic noir on books like Daredevil, the aformentioned Gotham Central, or the also mentioned Criminal, but this is among his strongest books. Sleeper is the sequel to a Wildstorm mini called “Point Blank”, a tragedy about a few Wildstorm regulars. Point Blank introduced us to Holden, a super-villain working in a massive, evil group…who happens to be a good guy at heart, working undercover for the government. But when things go wrong and the only person who can verify his story slips into a coma, Holden is trapped as a super-villain, forced to live a life he never wanted working for an organization he despises, hunted by his former allies.
Sleeper is Holden’s story, start to finish. Like all good noir, it’s a little bit comic, it’s a lot bit tragic, and the bad guys are the best part of the whole damn thing. Characters like Miss Misery and Genocide Jones, horrific people who would in most settings be reviled, become sympathetic, even likable figures, as Brubaker does things to humanize villainy that few comic writers care to try.
Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol honestly might be the best team-superhero book ever printed, to my mind. They were originally conceived of as a team of outcast heroes, who were set apart from humanity in some fundamental way – much like the X-Men. And while the X-Men took the idea one way (towards making them all celebrity supermodels with awesome powers), Doom Patrol quickly went the complete other way. The heroes were truly damaged, unable to function in normal society in some way thanks to the abilities they had.
Doom Patrol had some of the best character creation I’ve ever seen – from Crazy Jane, a woman with over 60 distinct personalities, each of which had its own superpower, to the Quiz, a Japanese woman with every superpower you haven’t thought of. The enemies were every bit the outcasts the heroes were, and they generally weren’t even really bad people – they just didn’t understand the world.
Doom Patrol is a book for anyone who loves the outcast, or for anyone with a yen for something insane.
Okay, I cheated a little bit. I said no Sandman – well, this isn’t Sandman! It’s Death, his older sister! And, to be fair, while I find that many comic fans have read Sandman at some point in their lives, I also find that many have missed out on reading the best spin-off there is – Death: The Time of Your Life and Death: The High Cost of Living.
These two thin volumes represent some of Gaiman’s better works, especially The Time of Your Life, a continuation of the story of Sandman’s Foxglove and Hazel. Like many of the books on here, it’s a little sad at times, but the book digs deep to show us just how much friendship can mean, and what we sometimes have to give up to be responsible for our loved ones. It’s not as epic as Sandman, but it doesn’t try to be – his Death has always leant herself towards a more personal touch, and she’s made excellent use of in these two stories.
1. Astro City
Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is, in many ways, his love song to comic books. If you’ve ever wondered why Busiek, whose runs on Superman, Avengers, and other big titles were generally met with relative indifference, still gets referred to in awe, wonder no longer – Astro City is it. Often billed as ‘the most realistic look at superheroes’, that isn’t quite right. It’s a world of superhumanity from the point of view of the average guy, or the world of superhumanity when it isn’t strapped down with all the rules and regulations Marvel and DC place on it to keep their cash cows fat.
He’s done it all. Astro City contains commentary on Crisis on Infinite Earths, on a Skrull Invasion, on the celebrity life-style of the Fantastic Four, and on just how harsh Superman’s day could be. He’s answered the question, “Why on earth would ANYONE live in a city with superhumans?!”, and he’s tackled both street-level and cosmic scuffles.
Astro City is one of the best comic books ever printed. Each issue is so packed full of love for the medium of superhero comics that you can’t help but smile the entire time you’re reading them. While most of the series is solid gold, two particular issues stand out. If you have a love of super-villains and the insane stunts they pull, the single issue story “I’ll Show Them All!” featuring the Junkman is one of the best, and if you want to see how something like Crisis on Infinite Earths might effect a normal person, look no further than “The Nearness of You”, a half-issue story that just might be the most heart-breaking comic you’ll read.