March was a shockingly good month for comics, and the hardest yet for coming up with ten, excellent books who stood above the rest. So we chose eleven. What didn’t make the list? I’ll include most of ‘em below, but Marvel’s excellent Age of X titles started canceling each other out; and L’il Depressed Boy from Image was so very, very close to making the top ten – but not quite yet. And a few titles, including Locke & Key, Action Comics, and Osborn released their penultimate issues. Near perfect all, but we’re waiting to see whether they stick the landing in April.
That all said, ten titles did stand heads and tails about the rest. These are the ten best comics of March, 2011:
Honorable Mention: Finals #1
I can’t really include this on the main list as it’s a reprint of Will Pfeiffer and Jill Thompson’s little-seen Vertigo miniseries. But if you didn’t read it before, this 100ish page spectacular is as subversive and hilarious as when it was first released. Set at a college that specializes in real world experience – from starting a cult, to building a nuclear bomb – the book is laugh out loud funny, and should be required reading on all college campuses as a case study in how to not go over the top.
10. Knight & Squire #6
We’ve been big fans of Paul Cornell’s England-set Batman & Robin series since the beginning, and are supremely sad to see it go. Though it’s hard to surpass Knight & Squire #3, which brought an iambic pentameter spitting Richard III back to life, the final issue matches any point in the series for bittersweet emotion and earnest, honest hope. The Joker has come to England, pissed off about how happy and bright everything is, rather than the grim, gritty world of Gotham City. He decides to bring his brand of “humor” to the British Isles, and finds he’s just not wanted, as villains and heroes alike team up to take him down. There’s a real sense of loss as Jarvis Poker, the British Joker sacrifices himself to save the soul of England… And also a sense that, in the world of the comic, as well as in the real world, for a little while, someone was bringing actual fun back to comics. More, please.
9. Bad Dog #4
I’d repeat the lyrics of “Since You’ve Been Gone,” here, but I’d like you to read the rest of the article. After a year and a half, Joe Kelly and Diego Greco’s dirty, hilarious bounty hunter series returned, and it’s better than ever. A werewolf who refuses to return to human form, and a disgusting midget are best friends and co-workers, tracking down dirty jobs no one else wants. At the same time, Lou (the dog of the title) is having a crisis of conscience, seeing a missing girl everywhere. He hasn’t been hired for the job, but maybe he should track her down? When even that doesn’t work out, Lou and Wendell (the midget) travel to Vegas for the mother of all benders. Kelly excels at making the gross and dirty commonplace, and is having a field day with his script here. Many comic book writers mistake actual grossness for funny grossness, but Kelly knows how to walk that line. The real star, though, is artist Diego Greco, who draws some glorious compositions, including the best one panel sum up of Vegas’ usual rags to riches story ever. Hopefully we won’t have to wait a year and a half for the next issue.
8. Ruse #1
I honestly didn’t know what to expect going into this title having – full disclosure – never read the original series from Crossgen. But that barely matters*, as this new series hits the ground running with one of the best openers I’ve ever read in a comic: a man lies dead on the floor, his head clearly severed from his body. A Holmes-esque detective stands over him, as do shocked family members and servants. One word emits from the detective’s mouth: “Suicide!” Look, Mark Waid, who wrote the book, is no stranger to comics. He’s quite possibly had the most consistently innovative and high quality run of any comic book writer, ever. But that’s a brilliant first page, perfectly encapsulating everything you need to know about the main character, the situation, and the tone of the book, all with one word and image. The rest of the book is no slouch, either, breezily taking us from point to point, introducing us to Steampunk detective Simon Archard and his long suffering assistant Emma Bishop. Whip smart dialogue, engaging ongoing mysteries, and a darkly comic tone make this a book that will keep us hooked for a long time – even if it is only four issues to start.
*I actually chatted with writer Mark Waid about this, and he said he built the issue to be new reader friendly, while containing Easter Eggs for long-time readers. I’d say he nailed that.
7. Captain America and Batroc The Leaper #1
Another pleasant surprise from this month is the one shot story featuring what we consider one of Captain America’s silliest villains. Good thing writer Kieron Gillen realizes that too, and doesn’t try to delve into Batroc the Leaper’s grim and gritty past. Instead, he sets him up as a man supremely aware of himself, and for that, it’s one of the best character studies of a villain we’ve read since Geoff Johns’ Rogue Profiles way back years ago in The Flash. Batroc knows he can’t beat Captain America; but he also knows he can hold him off for a while, and unlike other villains, is proud of that. He’s gone toe-to-toe with one of the best heroes in the Marvel Universe, and lived to fight another day. Will he make mistakes along the way? Sure. But he also learns from them. It’s a brilliantly structured issue, and we’ll say it: maybe he’s not that silly, after all.
6. Batman Incorporated #4
There’s a few Grant Morrisons out there: the crazy Grant Morrison who’s writing for himself (Final Crisis); the old school Grant Morrison who remembers humans sometimes have emotions (Joe the Barbarian); and then there’s our favorite, the balanced Grant Morrison who manages to push comics forward brilliantly while balancing story and character. This issue of Batman Incorporated was written by that Grant Morrison, and we’re giddy over the thought of it. The writer manages to fluidly juggle three different timelines in this issue – Batman trying to escape from a death trap; Batwoman tracking down a perp in Gotham; and the story of how Batman and the original Batwoman first met – while making each enrich the other, and crash together beautifully by the end. Reading this issue is watching a master storyteller at work, and he couldn’t have done it without the superb work of artist Chris Bunham. Bunham manages to make each timeline look distinct, including a trip back to the look of yesteryear, while never taking us “out” of the comic. Plus, this may just be a channeling of Morrison’s best collaborator, but Bunham’s art reminded me fondly of Frank Quitely, without the doughiness that pisses some fans off (not this guy, but still). The best issue of this book so far, and possibly the best single issue Morrison has written in several years. A must read for anyone who wants to see what the best Batman – and comics – can be.
5. Batman: Detective Comics #875
…And then there’s Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics, which turned in one of the best Commisioner Gordon stories of all time with this issue. Following up on last month’s story, Gordon is thrown for a loop as his psychotic son returns to Gotham, maybe – or maybe not – cured of his psychosis. As Gordon tracks a released convict through Gotham’s streets, we begin to wonder whether the steady rock of the Batman franchise may share a bit of his son’s maladies, and whether he’s about to kill an innocent man. Full of tension, and one of the best new collaborations in comics – I know their run is ending soon, but if DC is smart, they’ll keep Snyder and artist Francesco Francavilla together forever – this is a worthy spiritual successor to Batman:Year One.
4. Amazing Spider-Man #656
There were, once again, two excellent issues of Spider-Man released this month. And while we’re huge fans of writer Dan Slott’s take on the Spider-Man/Human Torch relationship, which took center stage in #657, it’s #656 that took the metaphorical cake. Spidey is going up against a new villain named Massacre who is basically an amoral killer. What an inconvenient time for Spider-Man to profess no one will die when he’s around… And also what a terrible time to lose your spider sense. There’s great comedy in this issue, and some really beautiful moments – particularly the end of the issue – but it’s the tension that kicked this up to number four. I knew I was deeply engrossed in this comic when I regressed to being ten years old again, and actually started talking to it, saying, “No, Spider-Man, watch out!” Seriously, guys, don’t do that on the subway like I did. Credit, though, to Slott’s taut plotting, and the always spectacular art from Marcos Martin. The first page alone, which recaps the plot of the issue while also delivering the credits is a work of art. And a panel where Spidey gets shot is jaw droppingly shocking. Month after month, Amazing Spider-Man is superhero comics at their best. We’re going to run out of nice things to say at some point.
3. Jimmy Olsen #1
Nick Spencer and R.B. Silva’s Jimmy Olsen back-up in Action Comics (along with Paul Cornell’s main story, of course) made that title one of the best of the year. Not only does this one shot reprint all of those stories, which follows a week in the life of the Daily Planet’s photographer/intern whipping boy as he tries to balance his love-life, his work-life, and getting a life with alien invasions; it also finishes up the story in brilliant fashion. In fact, reading them all in one chunk works even better than waiting an entire agonizing month to read the next adventures of Superman’s best pal. We talked earlier about titles that bring fun back to comics, and Jimmy Olsen is Fun with a capital “F.” But more than that, it’s grounded in some real beautiful emotion. Like Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim before it, Spencer recognizes that the steps to growing up aren’t necessarily always big ones. Olsen heads an eensy-weensy bit towards adulthood, but in a certain way, it’s a bigger change than the latest “big character death” that gets trotted out every few months. We probably won’t be seeing more of Spencer’s Olsen, as he’s now Marvel exclusive. But we hope he does bring his sense of whimsy, as this is easily the crowning achievement in what is already a brilliant – but young – career.
2. Comic Book Comics #5
Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey have pretty much cornered the market on smart, funny, literate documentary comics. Sure, it may be a limited market, but hey… They have it cornered. A new issue of their illustrated comic book history is always an event, but this one is particularly notable for bringing to light – for many fans, anyway – the harsh, unfair treatment that classic creators from Jack Kirby to Steve Gerber have suffered over the years in a simple, straightforward manner that still managed to be bitingly funny while presenting some truly awful situations. In fact, since it’s release, there’s been a number of responses from both the comic book companies and professionals, as well as a significant outcry from fans… Comic Book Comics is what political cartoons used to be: funny, insightful, and a real catalyst for change. If for nothing else, this issue would be on the list because it presents the whole Miracleman/Marvelman situation in the most straightforward manner possible – a Herculean effort that deserves more praise than we have room in this blog post for.
1. Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth #1
The first truly full length Axe Cop story would be cause for celebration in any month, but the reason this rockets to the top of our list for the month is, it seems, this month’s recurring theme: Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth #1 is pure joy in comic book form. Every page and panel ooze with the pure pleasure of the graphic format, whether it’s Axe Cop studying his craft at Axe Police Academy, or the machine that turns people in bad guys, this book has more creativity on one page than most comic books have in their entire lifetimes. A lot of ink has been spilled over the fact that it’s “written” by six year old and drawn by a thirty year old. A lot less has been said about how truly, deeply thrilling it is to read. You can get tons of Axe Cop online for free – and you should – but floppies like Bad Guy Earth only truly come along once in a lifetime. I could keep going on, but I think it’s best expressed by how I handed the comic to my wife, who seemed dubious, and said, “Just read this.” Ten-fifteen minutes later, after she had read the whole thing cover to cover, she turned to me, a huge smile on her face, and said, “Um. I would like to read the next one please.” Me too, wife. Me too.