The 10 Best Comics of May 2011

If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring? Ten great comics! Okay, fine, that was a huge stretch, but it was especially difficult to narrow down the ten best comics this month. Honestly? The top five came easily, and then we spent the next few hours grappling with the bottom five, with fun, well written books like Ruse #3 and Alpha Flight .1 just missing the cut (come on, you know I love you, guys). But since we had to decide on a top ten, a top ten it is. Plus one more. Because, you know, we can’t count:

Honorable Mention: The Nightly News #1

It’s not fair to lump a “best of” reprint of Jonathan Hickman’s first issue of The Nightly News in with the rest of the top ten. But shame on us, this one dollar reprint from Image finally got us to read the series that put Hickman on the map… And now we can see why. The logline – people wronged by the money-grubbers in the news industry fight back by killing ‘em all – barely does the comic justice. Expertly and densely written, the nihilistic text provokes revolution, but remembers to also be very, deeply funny while it does. We’ll definitely be picking up the trades after this.

10. Kirby Genesis #0

There’s something endearingly earnest about this first issue, which introduces the idea that the Pioneer 10 Space Probe accidentally fell through a Jack Kirby-esque wormhole, traveling through all the dimensions the legendary comic book artist created, before eventually summoning superheroes back to Earth. At least, that what we think will happen, as the #1 issue officially kicks off the concept. Regardless of how the series pans out though, this prologue is a lovely tribute to the breadth of the imagination of one of the medium’s grand masters.

9. Journey Into Mystery #623

Last issue – the first of Kieron Gillen’s run on the title – was a fun ride, well and wittily written, but we weren’t sold. Starting in the center of a crossover, Gillen’s tale of a Young Loki adventuring in the nine realms of Norse myth felt like a title in transition. God were we wrong. Last issue, it turns out, was all set-up, pairing Young Loki with a raven that contains the brain of Old Loki. This issue we find out that the series will essentially be the two of them battling wits: Old Loki set plans upon plans, and his younger version doesn’t know what they are – but damned if he’ll let a previous version of himself run his life.

This crazy, only in comic books concept would be enough, if it wasn’t for a spectacular sequence in the middle where Young Loki plunges himself deep into the heart of Asgard. This is followed by enough panels of a bird sitting and waiting to drive even decompression apologists batty… Except when Loki’s hand appears, gripping the ground in front of him; followed by his tear stained face, stricken by the knowledge he’s learned, we realize we’ve been treated to one of the most beautifully cinematic sequences we’ve seen in a long time. We’re officially on board for the long haul.

8. Skullkickers #7

Remember when comics were just allowed to be fun? Skullkickers remembers that… This comic, from the art, to the writing, to the lettering, screams bloodthirsty joy from every page. A giant bald warrior, and an angry red-headed dwarf travel the world, killing monsters – and people – for fun and profit. There’s way more new-reader friendly exposition in the front of the book, but that’s all you really need to know to enjoy the laugh-out-loud funny jokes, over the top violence, and celebrate the return of fun fantasy to comic books. Plus, an awesome pay-off of a last page. What more do you want from a comic book?

7. Courtney Crumrin Tales: The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Writer/Artist Ted Naifeh throws you into the deep end with this one-off tale, telling an untold story from pre-teen witch Courtney Crumrin’s grandfather’s youth. It’s a steep slope even for those of us who have been reading the fantastic, darkly comic all ages tales from the beginning, but it’s worth it: this is a complex, emotional tale that stands with the best of dark fantasy fiction. In this oversized issue, we’re treated to an old-fashioned noir mystery set in the world of magic, where nothing – and no-one – are who or what they seem. But like always, Naifeh is more concerned with the emotional repercussions, than the twists and turns (though there are plenty of those). The last few pages are a heartbreaking gut-punch that leaves you on a sad note, and goes a far way to explaining why Aloysius (the Grandfather) is the way he is: super-cranky.

6. Strange Adventures #1

The long-awaited sci-fi anthology from Vertigo is packed with talent, from the kick-off of a new series by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, to Paul Cornell, Jeff Lemire, and more. And like most anthologies, some of the stories are good, some not so good. The good definitely outweighs the bad here, or it wouldn’t be on this list at all… But what kicks it up several notches, on it’s own, is Kevin Colden’s short story, “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” which could quite possibly be a masterwork of modern scif-i/horror. Beautifully told and illustrated, there were several panels in this story that stopped me in my tracks, forcing my eye to stay on them for minutes at a time; studying Colden’s line-work as if there was hidden meaning in every stroke of the pencil.

Ironically, as the story – which I hesitate to ruin any part of, other than to say, as the title implies, it’s a very modern riff on Frankenstein – is all surface, on purpose. There’s nothing hidden here… Or rather, there is, and that’s part of the brilliance of Colden’s work. Visual motifs set up from the beginning pay off big at the end, with one of the saddest panels I’ve ever seen. Not only that, but Colden creates such a vivid world in just a few short pages, it’s agonizing to think we probably will never visit with any of the characters or situations again. I’m not quite sure how a revisit would necessarily add to this perfect story, but given how superb this first one is, I’d read it in a second.

5. Rocketeer Adventures #1

I could probably say something like, “Combine my comments about Kirby Genesis #0 with my comments about Skullkickers #7, and there’s my review of Rocketeer Adventures #1,” but that wouldn’t come close to doing justice to this lovely volume. Dave Steven’s classic character comes vividly to life in three short stories. John Cassaday’s opener is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, which is no shocker; what is a shocker is how good the writing is, too, perfectly capturing the tone of the original Rocketeer stories. Mike Allred’s second story is reliably quirky and hilarious, mining the goofier aspects of old-timey comics. And Kurt Busiek finds a riff on a classic wartime photo, which is surprisingly surprising, and effectively emotional, recontextualizing the scene for a comic book context. Plus, proceeds from the book go to a good cause, so really, there’s no reason not to pick this up. Sold!

4. Captain America/Thor: The Mighty Fighting Avengers

Was there any doubt that this Free Comic Book Day offering would be superb? Re-teaming writer Roger Landridge, artist Chris Samnee, and colorist Matt Wilson on the character that made their name – Thor, The Mighty Avenger – and throwing in Brian Clevinger and Gurihiru’s earnest re-imagining of Captain America was already a recipe for success. But beyond the story, which finds Thor and Cap teaming up with King Arthur to defeat Loki (seriously, how can you read comics and NOT love that just based on the description?), the context makes this all the better: this was a Free Comic Book Day giveaway, intended as an introduction to readers of all ages to these two classic Marvel characters. And goddamn if it doesn’t work perfectly. You don’t need to know anything coming in, and I dare you not to want to read more coming out. It’s a shame we won’t get anything more from this team… But it was nice to have one last hurrah.

3. Batman Incorporated #6

When’s the last time you could describe a Grant Morrison comic as, “fun!” I honestly can’t think of a time, maybe ever (though Seaguy comes pretty close); but this issue of Batman Incorporated was the most fun I’ve had reading a comic book all month. After five issues of Batman traveling the globe, recruiting other crime fighters for a mysterious cause, it’s finally time to take action. Morrison, and artist Chris Burnham use efficient scenes that jump all over the world, and back and forwards in time, without ever losing track of the thrust of the action – or, at the risk of sounding repetitive, the fun. More than anything, though, this actually feels big. Lot’s of comic book writers create a new villainous organization, tell us it’s going to be big trouble, and it just feels like any other threat. Here, we’re treated to Leviathan, a danger so huge, Batman can’t handle it alone. And even with Batmans (Batmen?) all over the world, he may still lose. This is an event comic that actually feels like an event.

2. Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine #6

I’ve been holding back on throwing this title on the list, even though Jason Aaron has been writing the craziest, best Spider-Man/Wolverine team-up possibly ever for months now, just because it wasn’t clear how this would pan out. Would it come together, or would all the Phoenix Guns, time clubs, and Doom The Living Planets amount to nothing more than a bunch of goofy nonsense. Turns out, it’s both, and Aaron had this planned from the beginning. For most of this issue, Spider-Man and Wolverine finally, after decades of comics, get what they’ve always wanted, in a place they’ve never expected. And they’re happy. So guess what happens next? You know the reversal is coming, you just don’t know how, or where, or when, and when it does come, it really matters, because he’s made you care deeply about these characters in a way few other writers have over those same past few decades of comics. Plus? X-Men villain Mojo forced to dance for some monkey’s amusement. And? The intro of an exciting new villain, right at the very end. It’s good to read one of Marvel’s Astonishing line of titles, and truly, honestly be astonished.

1. Avengers Academy #13

Christos Gage’s Avengers-in-training series has been good for a long time. This is the issue that made it great. It’s not just that we’re suckers for the idea of a superhero prom – which we are. It’s not just that there’s payoff to plot threads ranging from those started the previous issue, to one’s from decades earlier. It’s that, after thirteen issues (and a few guest appearances), the kids in the Academy finally feel like a team, and this title has officially become the heir to great comics like New Mutants and (on the other side of the pond) Teen Titans.

The beautiful thing is how much faith Marvel gave Gage to give this title a slow burn. The first six issues were all about introducing us to these new characters, one by one. The second set of six was about figuring out their relationships to each other. Most books would have them say they were a team at the end of issue one, but that’s not the way life works. You can get together in a group, but until you start having shared experiences together, you don’t actually become any sort of unit. Gage realizes that, and took the long slow burn to build it up. And it’s been completely, totally worth it. Whereas the first twelve issues were a fun, creative, and exciting way to view the Marvel Universe, through the eyes of kids with powers who may become great heroes, or great villains, the thirteenth issue makes this series one with impact: if something happens to these kids, then we will truly care. We hope they – and Gage – are around for a good long time.

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