The 10 Best Comics of February 2011

February was a great month for good comics, but it wasn’t a good month for great comics. When we were putting together our list for this month’s ten best, the possibilities nearly doubled those from our January list. But with a few exceptions, the choices fell on the side of really solid, well written, well drawn books that perhaps weren’t quite as strong as their previous issues; or were set up for later issues.

That said, there’s still ten comics that stood out from the pack, took our notice, made us cheer, cry, or chuckle – sometimes all three at once. These are the ten best single issues of February 2011:

10. Skull Kickers #6

We’ll freely admit we haven’t been the biggest fans of Image’s Skullkickers in the past. It’s a fun, but non-essential read, pairing an angry drunk dwarf with a huge bald dude with guns, fighting evil for money in fantasyland. And it’s not like the comic promises big sweeping epic emotion or ideas: it’s called Skull Kickers, for goodness sake. So what elevated this issue above the rest? Simple: we’re suckers for anthologies, and this one doesn’t have a bunk story in the bunch. Titled “Tavern Tales,” some are barely even stories, just broad sketches of our main characters getting into violent, and frequently hilarious situations.

The collection is anchored by two longer tales, comics blogger Chris Sims’ brightly paced sexy zombie story; and Adam Warren’s naturally whip-smart story of guns versus swords. In between, there’s two funs bits by Brian Clevinger and Ray Fawkes that play off like story jokes, rather than actual stories. But you know what? For tales told in a tavern, that’s just fine. More, please.

9. The Walking Dead #81

It’s hard, often, to pick out a standout issue of Walking Dead. Each time out, writer Robert Kirkman delivers a fluid, continuing tale that feeds seamlessly from the last issue, without break. So what makes this month’s story stand out are a few individual beats. Paying off the promise of last issue, which found our zombie survivors out in the cold, surrounded by hordes of undead, this issue has huge plot points, big action, and most importantly: Rick Grimes finally gets some.

Okay, maybe not most importantly, but it is important to the development of the character – and there’s a rather beautiful payoff moment involving a phone, and Rick moving on from his wife’s death. There’s even a big hero scene when the scarred survivor Andrea shows up at the last second, a rarity for this title where more often than not the characters show up a second too late. But what truly got our pulse pounding was the last few pages, as zombies broke through the wall protecting their “safe” village, and things – as they often do – went to s**t.

Next issue may end up being all action, which is fine for us; but this issue blended action beats, quiet character moments, and big plot developments, reminding us just why we love The Walking Dead so much.

8. The Flash #9

After two one shots focusing on villains, we’re finally focusing on hero Barry Allen – and it’s good to have him back. In fact, considering the previous arc was all about Allen finding his footing (pun intended) since returning from the dead, this is truly the first issue where we’ve seen what Allen’s new status quo is – and that’s everybody pretty much hating him. Due to his actions in the previous arc, the Central City police department actually needs to do paperwork now, taking their time and going through evidence.

And their reactions are exactly what you’d expect: like high schoolers, who hate the school nerd because he asked a totally valid question of the teacher, which led to homework for everyone. It’s a fun dynamic, ably aided by Franic Manapul’s gorgeous pencils. Plus, a crackerjack mystery, a new character with a surprising secret, and some great teases for DC’s upcoming Flashpoint event have made this required reading. Welcome back, Mr. Allen. We missed you.

7. X-Men Legacy #245

We were big fans of the Age of X: Alpha issue that introduced an alternate Marvel Universe timeline where mutants are nearly hunted to extinction. Yeah, we know: another one. But with writer Mike Carey at the helm, you get a completely fleshed out world, with iterations of our favorite characters pushed nearly to the edge. Carey himself puts it aptly in an afterword to this issue, likening it to Jazz: the music is recognizable; it’s how you riff on it that’s important. This issue, technically the first part of the series, throws you right into the middle of a battle between the surviving mutants, and a human army. And it’s gigantic.

Artist Clay Mann turns the issue into a combat scene straight out of Star Wars, showing scope, while never losing track of the individual characters, giving them each a fluidity and style unique to their powers. And if we ignore the Alpha issue (which you shouldn’t, but sake of argument), this is a perfect first issue: huge action, great character development, and enough of a mysterious tease to keep you slavering for the next issue. We’re officially on board.

6. Knight and Squire #5

Every issue of Paul Cornell’s English Batman and Robin riff has been a delight, but this month’s story elevates things with the sweet, sad tale of Jarvis, the English Joker. You see, Jarvis – who isn’t really a threat to anyone – is dying, and realizes his legacy is that he’s a nice guy, and basically just a knock-off of a popular American villain. Not much of a legacy at all, actually. So he sets about creating elaborate traps, while Knight and Squire – who know he’s not long for the world – sweetly make a show of trying to stop him. They want his last few weeks to be happy ones, and since he’s essentially making large-scale practical jokes, who does it hurt?

Well, the actual Joker, for one. Sick of the knock-offs and fakes, Batman’s archenemy has headed to England, and notches things up a scale by forcing Jarvis into large scale mayhem. It’s a neat, textured commentary on the darkening of modern comics, with The Joker playing the part of the angry comic book fan, demanding that people take superheroics, and supervillainy seriously. We’ll have to wait until next issue to find out whether fun triumphs over evil, but for now, we can enjoy one of the nicer send-offs for a non-classic character we’ve ever read.

5. Hulk #30

Speaking of fun, what’s not to like about a composite Red/Green Hulk? After a few more serious issues, Jeff Parker lets his hair down for a ridiculous romp through Hulk history, as forgotten villain Xenmu comes back to challenge Banner to contest of strength; only to encounter the Red Hulk, not the green one. Unfortunately, the uber-powered Impossible Man is along for the ride, and “helps” out by sticking Green Hulk and Red Hulk in the same body, but only giving them control over their own half. Credit to Parker for taking a silly idea, though, and making it work for the characters: they literally have to work together if they’ll want to overcome their adversary.

4. The Invincible Iron Man #501

Hey, you guys remember Acts of Vengeance, right? The Marvel event that pitted heroes against villains they don’t normally fight, to knock them off guard? We get a semi-sequel here, as frequent Spider-Man adversary Doctor Octopus squares off against Iron Man – and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the best issues of Iron Man ever written. That’s saying a lot, of course: Matt Fraction is writing Tony Stark’s adventures on a consistently high level, probably better than they’ve ever been. So what elevates this issue, in particular?

There’s the antagonist, of course, who makes perfect sense considering both Stark and Otto Octavius are tech-based characters, and Otto’s history of jealousy towards other scientists. And there’s the plot, which has an ailing Dr. Octopus challenging Stark to fix him; except the idea being if Stark can’t make him better, Stark has lost, because he’s not smart enough. That’s a neat little reversal, and plays right into Tony’s arrogance.

But it’s Salvador Larroca’s art which wins the month. Sequences set in the past are subtly different than those in the present, and he manages to differentiate the growth and changes in both characters. In addition, this issue is dense. There’s a ton of panels and words, as well as some wonderful uses of structure, but it never feels like a bunch of talking heads – even when sometimes, it is. Given Doc Ock’s upcoming star turn in Amazing Spider-Man, we have a pretty fair idea of how all this will turn out. But watching the two scientists pit wits against each other is just as smart and exciting as you’d want it to be.

3. Batman: Detective Comics #874

Was there any scene as terrifying in comics this month as Commissioner Gordon talking to his son? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “No, there wasn’t.” Pristinely paced by artist Francesco Francovilla, we alternated between Gordon’s self-admitted psychopathic offspring, a frightened Gordon, and a bathroom, which had a slowly increasing puddle of water dripping out from under the door. You see, Gordon’s son makes a “joke” about killing a waitress, chopping off her head, and stuffing it in the toilet. And the entire time he talks about trying to hold his insanity in, and how he’s really all better, we can see that puddle growing larger. And we wonder how much of a jok it was after all.

It’s an amazing visual trick straight out of a movie, yet it works perfectly in the comic book form. You’re half concentrating on the conversation this madman is having, half getting more and more nervous as you wonder just what is in the bathroom. The kicker is a doozy that I won’t ruin here, but this may be the best individual scene in any comic this month. That it’s followed up by Dick Grayson making the dorkiest joke any Batman has ever made is just gravy.

2. Sweet Tooth #18

Sweet Tooth has always had a storybook quality to it, from the apocalyptic plague that causes children to look like animals, to the young boy growing up in a cabin all alone, to the old man who befriends the young boy, taking him on a journey to a mythical promised land that may or may not exist. So it was probably the next logical step to actually tell the story in the form of a storybook, in prose, rather than in comic panel dialogue. But logical next step or not, this is a wonderful, beautiful issue of a comic book that is magnificently illustrated and a joy to read.

One thing you never really get in your apocalyptic fiction is hope and happiness, but Jeff Lemire injects Gus – the hero of the book – with the right mix of earnest righteousness that makes Sweet Tooth a story about people being better than they could be in the face of adversity. When our traveling band of survivors finds an abandoned mall, they stay the night to gather supplies, and end up in a scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in a Christmas special. The whole issue, in fact, has that magical, heartfelt quality to it; the characters even note that this moment of grace probably won’t last, and there are certainly some very dark moments in this issue. But for the moment, they’re happy, and so are we.

1. Amazing Spider-Man #655

Dan Slott has been on fire since he took over solo reigns on Amazing Spider-Man, pushing Marvel’s number one superhero to the limit, while balancing humor and fun. But more than that, Slott is innovating the structure of the comic book, pushing himself and his artists to create unique, seminal images that will be looked back on later on as object lessons in how to treat comic books as an art form. Lucky for him, he’s aided by some of the best artists in the business – and this issue, he has Marcos Martin as a collaborator. I’d say, in fact, that Slott has never been better than when he’s working with Martin… Their arcs together previously on ASM created one of the best new villains of the past decade – Paper Doll – while looking damn good.

But the fact of the matter is, they’ve worked together before, we’ve seen it before, they’ve done great work together So what makes this the best single issue released all month? Emotion, history, and structure.

First, emotion and history: last issue, J. Jonah Jameson’s wife Marla was killed, and of course, Peter Parker blames himself. Over the course of a mostly wordless issue, we see how, beyond the traditional targets of Gwen Stacy and Uncle Ben, Spider-Man holds the guilt of every single person, hero or villain, who died on his watch, whether it was directly his fault or not. It’s a heartbreaking issue, particularly for long time Spider-fans, as Slott mines the archives to bring back characters who were one-offs, and long-running, while making all this accessible to first time readers, no mean feat. And the final pages, where Spidey swears no one will ever get hurt again, are followed by the introduction of a new villain, and a punch in the gut.

Now, structure: Martin puts together compositions like no-one else, from a page where Spidey thinks he can save Uncle Ben “this time” which spirals to its inevitable conclusion, to a dream page where multiple Spideys chase multiple Gwens through a dreamscape populated by the dead. Pretty much every page is a work of unique art. Credit also to Slott, though, for giving Martin the ideas and leeway to play around in space. Plus, the general structure – silent pages, followed by dreams, followed by sparse, giant splashes where Spidey looks on to the city he’s sworn to protect: iconic is the word that comes to mind.

There were three issues of Spider-Man released this month, and all of them were good; but this was easily the best issue of anything we read all month.

Honorable Mentions: Action Comics #898, The Amazing Spider-Man #654, Atomic Robo: Deadly Art of Science #4, Carnage #3, Deadpool/Cable #26, Fantastic Four #588, Heroes for Hire #3, The Incredible Hulks #622, Osborn #3, Power Man and Iron Fist #1, Secret Six #30, Silver Surfer #1, Spider-Girl #4, Thunderbolts #153, Ultimate Spider-Man #153, Ultimate Thor #4, The Unwritten #22, Who Is Jake Ellis? #2, Wolverine #5.1

Related Posts:
The 10 Best Comics of January 2011
The Cosmic Heavy Hitters. Abnett, Lanning, and their ’Annihilators’

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