It’s time to roll out the red carpet and dole out my personal “awards” for the best of the past year. Of course, the carpet in question was originally an off-white, stained red by the blood of pizza-delivery guys and endangered birds. Anyhoo, welcome to the first annual Glass Eye Awards, honoring the cream of the crop in comics, as best as we here at Eye on Comics can figure (and by “we,” I mean me). Bear in mind, there’s no way for me to have read all comics and graphic novels released in 2006, and a few choices — perhaps even obvious ones — may have been accidentally omitted, as my mind is no steel trap. In other words, don’t view this list as any kind of final word or all-encompassing, definitive list of the tops in comics.
Best Limited Series: As is often the case when I assemble lists of my favorite comics and creators for any given year, it wasn’t easy to whittle this selection down to a few choices. Thanks to the success of the trade-paperback/collection format, limited series have become more and more prominent in the industry. Furthermore, the shorter form really allow creators to tell more focused stories; subplots designed to hook readers for the long run aren’t as necessary, and a greater emphasis on theme can arise.
Writer Brian K. Vaughan did some great work in 2006 with the limited series format. Dr. Strange: The Oath has ignited interest in Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme in a way that hasn’t been seen in a couple of decades at least. Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin have combined super-hero action, playful dialogue and a deadly serious plot catalyst into a comic that always finds its way to the top of my pile of comics to read. Vaughan also teamed with artists Steve Rolston and Jason Alexander (as well as Philip Bond and Eduardo Barreto on the first issue) to craft the best spinoff of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to date: The Escapists. Other creators who delved into the world of Chabon’s Escapist told super-hero stories. Vaughan opted to tell a slice-of-life story instead, and it’s been almost universally lauded, as far as I can tell. And deservedly so. Another great title was Talent, a thriller by writers Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski and artist Paul Azaceta, published by Boom! Studios. This cinematically crafted story, though not the most cerebral comic book, is deliciously dark and thoroughly entertaining.
Some of my other favorite mini-series of 2006 were ones that were different or experimental in some way. David Petersen’s Mouse Guard is a delightfully entertaining fantasy story that’s bound to appeal to the Lord of the Rings crowd, but actually, anyone who enjoys good storytelling will be able to get into it. It also really helped to make comics fans aware of Archaia Studios Press. Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram is a great Hellblazer-esque celebration of the power of music and the edgy, fascinating world of youth culture. Phonogram artist Jamie McKelvie’s crisp, clean style is quite attractive, and he pulls off some unusual but eye-catching visuals as well. Writer Jason Aaron made a big splash with his comics debut — The Other Side; I was mesmerized by the parallels and contrasts he employs to tell this story of the Vietnam War. Pairing Aaron with up-and-coming artist Cameron Stewart was a great move as well; Stewart continues to impress with the detail and breadth of his work.
The above-mentioned titles are all great limited series, and if you haven’t read one, some or all of them yet, do yourself a favor and seek them out (either now or in the inevitable trade-paperback format). But my pick for the best limited series of 2006 is a title that actually began late in 2005: Local. It earns the Glass Eye in this category thanks to writer Brian Wood’s strong, character-driven storytelling and continued elevation of self-contained storytelling. Each issue tells its own distinct story about angry, saddened and/or disenfranchised youth. Local is about people’s flaws and emotional limitations, and artist Ryan Kelly’s black-and-white artwork captures the pain and vulnerability of the characters perfectly.
Best Original Graphic Novel: The OGN rises in popularity more and more with each passing year, it seems, and I know there are a number of good OGNs released in 2006 that I didn’t get a chance to read. But I was also lucky to sample a number of compelling books with strong foundations in characterization. For example, Mom’s Cancer would have been a shoo-in as my top pick for this category, but to be fair, since it was a webcomic first, it’s not really an original graphic novel, per se. Jamie S. Rich’s romance story, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, was a wonderfully personal tale as well, hitting all the right notes in terms of universal emotional experiences. Furthermore, the Oni Press graphic novel introduced us to artist Joelle Jones, whose sleek linework merits further exposure in the industry.
AiT/Planetlar brought us another Joe Casey/Charlie Adlard project in 2006. Rock Bottom has a super-hero concept — a man turning to stone — as a catalyst for the plot, but it’s really about coming to terms with a terminal illness and contending with how some see him as a victim, or something to be exploited. The stark black-and-white artwork stood out as being quite unique, and Casey’s script really brings an ordinary man in impossible circumstances seem real. Meanwhile, Night Trippers, by writer Mark Ricketts and artist Micah Farritor, was far more extreme in tone but thoroughly entertaining and inventive. It is a surreal romp through 1960s mod culture, filtered through the lens of a traditional vampire story. Farritor’s stylized artwork suits the weird tone of the story nicely.
Most of the above OGN picks for the best of 2006 boasted down-to-earth characters and storytelling, and that’s what drew me to them. The same can be said of my favorite graphic novel of 2006. Earning the Glass Eye for Best OGN is Gray Horses. Writer/artist Hope Larson offers up a quiet story about a meek young woman finding direction and strength in life after initially trying to hide from past pain. Larson’s uses simple shapes and lines to achieve remarkably subtle but effective expressions for the characters. Her inventive approach to lettering adds to the dreamy tone of the storytelling as well.
Best Ongoing Series: When it comes to this category, there are always a couple of titles from DC’s Vertigo imprint to be found, and this year is no exception. Brian Wood not only penned the best limited series of 2006 but one of the best ongoing titles: DMZ. Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli aren’t just telling a compelling story about the nature of journalism. What’s important about their work on DMZ is how they bring a foreign reality — insurgency and life in a war zone — into the Western experience, shattering the illusion of America the Beautiful. In a world in which political leaders are dismissive of violence in the Middle East while trying to avoid taking responsibility for creating a civil war, DMZ sees that kind of explosive unrest unleashed in a familiar setting: the iconic streets and towering buildings of New York City. Another Vertigo book that examines and challenges U.S. perspectives is Steven T. Seagle and Becky Cloonan’s American Virgin. In Adam Chamberlain, Seagle has crafted a fascinating protagonist. The foundation for the character is a dichotomy: moral certitude and direction with feelings of lust and revenge always at a boil below the surface. Adam is righteous and judgmental, but he’s also intelligent and understandably flawed. The left-leaning audience for this book should detest Adam, but there’s an undeniably admirable quality to the character, tempered with all-too human flaws to which one can easily relate.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips only saw the first three issues of their new Marvel/Icon, creator-owned series, Criminal, hit the stands in 2006, but that was more than enough for it to stand out from the crowd. The writer and artist have proven themselves to be a powerful storytelling team in the past (see Sleeper), so it was no surprise that this new crime drama would hit all the right notes as well.
The folks at Image Comics are publishing two of my favorite titles, and two of the best series of 2006. One is Elephantmen, from Comicraft’s Richard Starkings and artist Moritat (along with other contributors). The buildup for ongoing plotlines has been slow, but the characters are really compelling. Furthermore, Moritat has managed to succeed at the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of artist Jose Ladronn, who illustrated the original Hip Flask one-shots that led to this regular title. We only saw three issues of Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell in 2006, but each was a triumph in storytelling. Fell has garnered the most attention for successfully spearheading Image’s Slimline format, with fewer pages for a cheaper price. When one reads an issue of Fell, though, one never feels as though one is getting less story. Templesmith’s eerie, intense art always makes the reader feel as though supernatural forces are at play, but the horror of the stories always proves to be uncomfortably human and possible.
In this case, though, the Glass Eye, appropriately, goes to a title featuring a man who sees and hears all. All-Star Superman achieves a perfect balance of the traditional super-hero storytelling of the Silver Age and the more cerebral, challenging writing of Grant Morrison. Science-based science-fiction, campiness and down-to-earth emotion all converge in this title that is, above all else, just plain fun. Artist Frank Quitely also achieves a nice balance between that sense of fun and energy and a grislier take on the sci-fi violence that is part and parcel of the most recognizable super-hero icon of them all.
Click here to check out the second half of the Glass Eye Awards, in which I share my thoughts on some of the best comics creators of 2006.