Welcome to our coverage of the Glass Eye Awards, celebrating the best in comics from 2009 (or, at least the best ones I’d read and enjoyed over the course of the year, as far as my limited memory serves, so your mileage may vary). Oh, look who’s coming down the red carpet to attend the award ceremony! It’s Mickey Mouse, proud new owner of Marvel Comics. Mickey, who are you wearing? North Face? Makes sense… the sky’s dumping a couple of feet of snow on us at the moment.
Oh, it seems the awards are about to begin, so we’d best take our seats. In this first part of the 2009 Glass Eye Awards, we’ll look at the best comics and original graphic novels of the year. The second part, which is forthcoming, will look at the comics professionals who had the best year, from the standpoint of consistent creative success as opposed to sales success.
Best Limited Series: There were plenty of fantastic comics produced in 2009, and many of them were published in the limited series format. Some publishers seem to turn more often to the format, transforming what would have been an ongoing series into a series of limited series. One of the best limited series of 2009 was Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s Umbrella Academy: Dallas, the second go around for their bizarre and intense super-hero team under the Dark Horse Comics banner. Next on my list of the best mini-series of the year is one that eventually led into an ongoing series. Roger Langridge’s revival of The Muppet Show as a Boom! Studios comic book seemed to wow everyone last year. The Muppet Show proved that even comics based on a licensed property could stand out among the best the medium has to offer.
Marvel’s best limited series of 2009 comes courtesy of its creator-owned imprint, Icon. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips relaunched their Criminal property with a new mini-series, and Criminal: The Sinners showed that the break they took to craft Incognito didn’t dull the sharp blade of their noir storytelling skills in the least. Over at DC Comics, it launched what was easily the most inventive and exciting limited series of the year, at least in terms of format. Wednesday Comics was a fascinating experiment that brought top industry talents together for a weekly anthology series that always entertained in a broadsheet format that proved that glossy paper and mint condition weren’t necessary to make colorful comics.
The best limited series of 2009 came early in the year though, and it was published by Dynamite Entertainment. Writer Garth Ennis is no stranger to the world of war comics, and he’s been penning a series of limited series for Dynamite for a little more than a year now. Ennis achieved what I saw as a pinnacle in his career with Battlefields: Dear Billy, illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg. Their story of a damaged woman’s conflict between her hatred for those she felt wronged her and her love for an honorable man was riveting, brutally honest and incredibly touching despite its darker elements.
Best New Series: As usual, I’ve divided up ongoing titles into two categories: new titles that debuted in 2009 and established ones, and here, we turn our attention to the former. On the one hand, Image Comics seemed to turn its attention and promotional efforts toward the sort of more traditional super-hero titles, such as the less-than-inspired Haunt and Image United, but it was also home to one of the best new ongoing series of the year. John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew is clearly intended as satire, but it also boasts wholly original and weird concepts that set it apart from other fare.
Mark Waid and Peter Krause’s Irredeemable didn’t exactly break new ground with its vision of a Superman archetype turning into a malevolent force, but Waid’s compelling characterization and Krause’s convincing and Curt Swan-esque artwork made every single issue stand out as a compelling read; the mystery of the Plutonian’s chaotic turn also served to draw readers back to the Boom! Studios title every month. Over at Oni Press, we’ve only see one issue of Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown so far, but it was enough to signal that it promises to be as fascinating as Rucka’s Queen & Country and even more interesting than the writer’s work with various DC super-heroine types.
It was under DC’s Vertigo imprint that we saw the best new ongoing of 2009, though. DC’s mature-readers imprint has recently seen the conclusions of some of its more popular and solidly selling properties (such as Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets), and it seemed to respond with the launches of several new series, boosted by an incredibly friendly price point of $1 for introductory issues. Of those new debuts, it was The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, that really engaged my imagination and tapped into trends in literary and celebrity culture to offer a story that made the most of the audience’s sense of wonder and cynicism at the same time. That made it my favorite new ongoing title of the year.
Best Series: Though I felt that Marvel’s “Dark Reign” storylines dragged on too long and interfered with too many of its various titles in 2009, I have to admit its impact on one particular ongoing series added a lot to the storytelling. Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s continuing stint on Invincible Iron Man embraced a spy-genre riff that brought some riveting drama and intrigue to the mix. Fraction took the character in a new direction while incorporating Iron Man’s long history and maintaining an accessible tone despite the myriad of continuity elements that were integral to the plot. I also disagreed with Marvel’s decision in 2009 to relaunch various Ultimate universe titles with fresh first issues, but that didn’t diminish the energy and fun of the mix of teen soap-opera and super-heroics that writer Brian Michael Bendis offers up each month in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (which I saw just continuing Ultimate Spider-Man rather than as a new series). Artist David La Fuente brought a new, youthful look to the series that invigorated it.
A couple of the best ongoing, continuity titles of 2009 also stemmed from the world of creator-owned comics. Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’s Ex Machina, published under DC’s Wildstorm imprint, has focused more on super-hero genre elements as it nears its conclusion, but there was still plenty of politics in the mix to engage the intellect. Terry Moore’s self-published Echo boasted all of the sensitive characterization he instilled in his previous creator-owned title, Strangers in Paradise, with a brainy take on science-fiction that incorporates real science and ethical issues. His scripts are incredibly dense, but the information is so interesting the wordy nature of the storytelling doesn’t hurt the book at all.
My pick for the best series of 2009 is one that’s been among my top picks in this category before. While I don’t think 2009 was as good a year for writer Robert Kirkman as others before it, there’s no denying that his efforts to take his characters in new and horrifying directions has kept The Walking Dead one of the most unpredictable and engrossing reads of the decade, let alone the year. Charlie Adlard’s sketchy style certainly drives home the ugly, dark and disturbing circumstances in which the characters find themselves, but perhaps the greatest strength of the series in 2009 was how so much more of horror stemmed from the protagonists’ actions than those of threats from outside of the group.
Best Original Graphic Novel: As I glanced over my list of top picks in this category for 2009, I realized they all had something in common: they were all crafted by a single creator, someone serving as both writer and artist, and maybe it was that singular vision that contributed to their strengths. Gilbert Hernandez’s The Troublemakers was no doubt a delight for fans of the Love and Rockets writer/artist, but as an only casual reader of his work, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The quirky combination of slice-of-life elements and a crime drama worked incredibly well, and while The Troublemakers boasts a connection to the world of L&R, one needn’t be aware of it or versed in those other comics to appreciate this graphic novel. Moving from a seasoned storyteller to a new one, Simon Roy blew me away with his graphic novella Jan’s Atomic Heart, which stood out as a testament to the powerful influence of European comics. The Canadian creator’s tale of friendship and politics, of an identity crisis and terrorism was surprisingly grounded despite its more extreme elements, and I hope we see more from this new creative voice in 2010.
IDW Publishing was the source of my next two picks for the best original graphic novels of 2009. Troy Little’s Angora Napkin was something like what the Spice Girls or Josie and the Pussycats might have been like had the concept been the brainchild of Tim Burton or animator John Kricfalusi. The story of a girl band’s role in bringing about a supernatural apocalypse is all about attitude and silliness, and it’s an awful lot of fun. There’s a possibility it could be developed as a TV series for a Canadian cartoon channel, so Little’s property may end up with a bigger media profile in 2010. My next pick in this OGN category isn’t entirely an original graphic novel as it’s an adaptation of a crime novel from the ’60s. While Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter was based on a Donald Westlake/Richard Stark novel, it deviated from it as well as Cooke recognized the different medium could convey the same concepts in a different way. The Hunter was such a rewarding reading experience and looked so good, I’d pegged it as the best graphic novel of 2009 even before I’d finished reading it.
But then I happened upon David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp, published by Pantheon Books. Easily the best graphic novel published in 2009 (at least of those I read), Asterios Polyp is the sort of story and concept that could only be presented in the medium of comics. Mazzuchelli manages to get his audience interested and invested in a character that’s not all that nice a person through a study of various contrasts and opposites. The motif is explored not only conceptually but visually as well. Asterios Polyp is the sort of work that merits and inspires seemingly unending discussion and serious academic study. Serious critics and scholars could write volumes about this book, and I suspect it will long stand out as one of the most respected and lauded graphic novels… not only of the year or of the decade, but in the history of the medium.
That’s it for this first half of the 2009 Glass Eye Awards. Click here to see the Eye on Comics picks for the best creators of 2009.
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.