The 10 Best Comics of January 2011

For too long, Top 10 lists have been the provenance of the end of the year. I will tell you, as a critic, they are hard to do. Hopefully you’ve kept good notes, but most of the time, you’re scrambling to remember the span of titles that affected you over the course of the year, distilling twelve months of stories down to one pithy sentence or paragraph.

Well I say… No more! Starting this year, MTV Geek will tell you the absolute best comics that were published each month – and we know, because we read pretty much all of ‘em. We’re not saying these are the best series – though they often are. These are, in the span of hundreds of books released on the stands each month, the ones that stood heads and tails over the others. And if you disagree? Hey, let us know – that’s what the Internet is for.

Without further ado, here are the ten best comics of January 2011 – and one Honorable Mention.

Honorable Mention: Ice Haven

Daniel Clowes’ comic book riff on Our Town sneaks in here, as technically it’s been published two times before. The controversial book has, after nearly six years, been released in soft-cover, after a lengthy absence caused by a (frankly) ridiculous scandal over its contents. The book is about the town of Ice Haven, a friendly enough place full of artists, weirdos, and most horrifying of all: comic book critics. Textured, hilarious, and ultimately very, very sad, Ice Haven is Clowes at his best. Though it’s not new material, it is essential reading for all comic book fans, so it makes the list.

10. Jonah Hex #63

You could probably throw any issue of Jonah Hex on a Top 10 list, and it wouldn’t seem out of place. However, this month’s tale of gritty revenge stands a notch above for what it doesn’t show, rather than what it does. In a comic book landscape littered with severed heads, bloody arms, and worse, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray scripted an entire issue that dealt with a heinous child mutilator, and left everything off-screen. Rather than taking away the power of the subject, it made everything all the more horrible to endure – and also helped hit the punch line of the last panel, which finally shows the gore we’ve been expecting, and hard. A near perfect issue of what is a near perfect comic anyway.

9. Hack/Slash: Me Without You

While Tim Seeley’s intro into Image with his first Hack/Slash series (“My First Maniac”) was a solid reintroduction to heroine Cassie Hack, what was missing was her monstrous sidekick, Vlad. This one-shot succeeds on multiple levels not only because it focuses on Vlad – the real star of the book – but it also gives us all the humor and pathos inherent in any good story about a monster with a heart of gold. It’s sad, gruesome, and most of all, hilarious. Plus, a kicker of a last page gives us a different perspective on the end of the previous series – and we get hints about the larger conflict that will be brewing in the ongoing. A perfect tease for the series, a great entry point for new readers, and an enjoyable, re-readable one-shot. What more could you want?

8. Action Comics #897

Quickly, before it’s too late: someone let Paul Cornell take over Detective Comics, and have it starring The Joker. Cornell has been writing a trippy, smart story about Lex Luthor’s search for ultimate power since he came on the title. But by pitting Batman’s arch-nemesis against Superman’s in a battle that only uses their smarts, Cornell may have written the best Joker/Luthor team-up ever. Luthor, we know Cornell has a handle on. But Joker is a revelation: funny, witty, dangerous, and in many ways, smarter than Lex. It’s the best, most original – yet the truest to the essence of the character – take on The Joker since Grant Morrison, or at least Paul Dini. The entire issue takes place with two men talking in a room at a table, but it’s more action packed and exciting that pretty much any comic that came out the same week. If this is the only time we see Cornell writing Joker, at least we had this one issue. But please, DC: give us more.

7. New Mutants #21

After a rocky start in his first arc, Zeb Wells has been nailing issue after issue of this title, making it easily the best comic in the X-Men side of the Marvel Universe. And the past arc has been epic, building on plot points not only as far back as issue number one, but also as far back as 1989. Seriously. Yet it works because of Wells’ pitch perfect sense of the New Mutants’ characters, and Leonard Kirk’s incredible pencils. He’s as deft drawing an intimate moment between two would-be lovers as he is a two-page spread of Elder Gods invading Earth. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that this issue is all resolution, bringing to bear everything that’s happened in the title previously. That said, any long time X-Men fan that doesn’t get choked up by the last page – and then immediately chilled to the bone – doesn’t have a heart. Or a bone.

6. Who Is Jake Ellis? #1

One of the biggest surprises of January, “Who Is Jake Ellis?” is everything the first issue of a comic should be. It immediately hooks you in with its premise, which I’d hate to spoil here. Suffice to say, an international spy/thief type person is getting help from a source who may or may not exist. However, it’s the execution that sings, as scene after scene plays like a big-screen, Bourne-type movie, while still using the color palette and panel structure you can only achieve in comics. Original, gritty, and exhilarating, I left issue one hungry for issue two. Even if the rest of the series fizzles, this stand out as one of the best debuts of the past few years.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man #651

Dan Slott has written some pretty fantastic things in his tenure on Amazing Spider-Man – but this issue has pretty much everything you’d want from a Spider-Man comic, plus one of the more innovative bits of dialogue we’ve seen recently – which bumps it up to the top. Peter Parker is facing off against – though he doesn’t know it – his diametric opposite, the New Hobgoblin. Slott had already done a bang-up job setting up Phil Urich as the anti-Peter, complete with an Uncle Ben, a job selling footage of the villainous Hobgoblin to build up his own rep, and even a riff of the “great responsibility” line, so we were on board with that. But this issue, Peter counters the Hobgoblin’s sonic powers by canceling noise in his immediate radius. Except that means he can’t hear anyone, and no one can hear him. Not only does that mean Spidey is quipping in silence, it means that when the Kingpin gets his clutches on Spidey’s ally, The Black Cat, and tells the hero that he’ll tear her limb from limb unless he comes and fights him… Spidey has no idea what’s happening. The scenes that follow are among the tensest and most exciting we’ve seen in recent superhero comics – not to mention, brimming with big humor, and big emotion.

4. Echo #27

If you’ve read our review of this issue, you already know this – but in case not: up until this month, we had not read a single issue of Terry Moore’s superhero riff. But even with that against it – especially with that against it, actually – this stands as one of the most creative, poignant, and unique comics we read all month. Even coming in the middle of a complicated story about evil government experiments, heroes who are getting younger and losing their memories, and girls who are growing to gigantic size, Moore manages to infuse every moment and panel with pure, honest character work. You instantly know who everyone is, where he or she stands, and what’s happened previously to him or her – not because they say it out loud, but because his line work is so expressive. Telling a beautiful, big, SciFi story with heart is what comics should be all about. Luckily, that’s exactly what Terry Moore is tackling in Echo.

3. Thor the Mighty Avenger #8

It’s bittersweet, of course, to have this on the list, as T:TMA was cancelled with this issue. Credit to writer Roger Langridge’s mastery of the form, though, that even with four issues to go in his overarching story, this issue still stands on its own as a massive achievement in the field of comic book writing. Thor has been captured so that a never-now-to-be-known villain can switch brains with the God of Thunder. He breaks free, battling robots, and even potential ally Iron Man – all of which is fun, big action in the mighty Marvel manner. But what makes this issue, are the last few pages. Thor, who up until now has been a bit of a petulant self-centered jerk, creates a thunderstorm to replenish the crops destroyed during his fight. The easy way out would be to have Thor learn a lesson, and be a changed man. And he is, but due to Langridge’s grasp on actual human character arcs, he’s only kind of changed – he takes credit for the idea to create a storm, but it’s also possible he may just have been acting out, creating the storm out of anger. None of this would be possible, though, without the art of Chris Samnee, and Matt Wilson’s beautiful colors. The pair has set a new standard for what an all-ages comic should look like, creating truly American compositions that stand up to the best of Norman Rockwell. This issue should be in a museum; instead, it’ll just languish in the back bins, unless comic readers snatch them up, quick.

2. Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom #4

Every issue of Locke & Key is reliably superb, pushing the boundaries of what a comic book consistently should – and can be. This mini-series in particular, has played with the form: presenting an issue in the style of Calvin & Hobbes; showing an entire month, a day at a time in one issue; and this time around, we get imaginary sequences in the style of old war comics. All of which continues to show the nearly limitless range of artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Where this issue stands out from the pack, though, are the characters. For the most part, we’re back to basics here, exploring the mysteries behind Key House, and just what the evil Zack Wells wants with the equally mysterious Omega Key. Except the entire story is told through the eyes of a terrified, mentally challenged, previously side character named Rufus. He wants to do the right thing, but just doesn’t know how to get the words out. This issue is full of huge revelations for the series, but it really is those small character moments with Rufus, as he desperately tries to push past his “challenges” to save some lives that make it such a joy to read. It’s been said to death, but Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez are a perfect team, working on a perfect comic book. We don’t say that lightly, but it’s completely true – Locke & Key is as close to perfection as the graphic form can get. Pick up this issue, and we think you’ll see why.

1. The Infinite Vacation #1

Why is Nick Spencer and Christian Ward’s alternate universe noir at the top of our list? It may be because it was nearly hyped into oblivion – and met that hype. It may be because Nick Spencer is one of the hottest new authors at three different comic companies right now, and this is easily the best thing he’s written so far. And it may be because Christian Ward uses the opportunity of alternate universes to play with the panel structure of the comic in unique ways nearly every page or so – eschewing the grid (mostly) for panels that bleed and cross over each other. But more likely, it’s just that the book is so much fun. From being able to buy time-shares in your own alternate life on your iPhone, to having support staff (a tech specialist, and a therapist) who are also alternate versions of you, the Infinite Vacation explores the idea of alternate universes in ways that are logical, exciting, and have never been touched on before – something virtually unheard of in science fiction. All this wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the noir hook: hints of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top; a mysterious woman who may be more than she seems; and a few dead bodies. Problem is, those dead bodies are also all alternate versions of the main character. This is the sort of first issue that’s so good, you’ll be bummed out five months in advance that it’s only a mini-series. We can’t wait for more.

…And here are some other books that caught our attention this month. Consider them runners-up, and who knows? They may show up on the top ten best series of the year, even if they don’t show up on the monthly lists.

Age of X: Alpha, American Vampire #11, Avengers Prime #5, Batman Beyond #1, Chaos War #5, Fables #101, Fantastic Four #587, Heroes for Hire #2, Invincible Iron Man #500, Knight and Squire #4, She-Hulks #3, Uncanny X-Force #4, The Unwritten #21

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