My 12 Favorite Trade Reading Experiences Of 2012

I write about a lot of trades on this site, about two a week if I’m on my game. But, I actually read a lot more than that. So, this particular list is the 12 books or runs that I enjoyed the most reading or re-reading this year. Most of them have been covered on the site, but others have not. I’ll give the latter a few more words than the former, but hope you enjoy.
outsiders looking for trouble¬† I read all of Judd Winick’s run of Outsiders this year, but didn’t write about it? Why? Well, it was a pretty big reading project, something that makes it harder for me to write about as a whole. But, I still really enjoyed this reading experience. Winick brings a realness to superhero comics without letting it get too in the way (if that makes sense). I know a lot of people think he forces issues into books, but I think these are the kinds of things that should be talked about and seen. Anyway, this was a fun superhero reading experience that made me remember how fun the DCU was back when this book and Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans launched. Good times. starman-omnibus-vol-3I haven’t written about James Robinson’s Starman because I haven’t finished the last omnibus yet. I haven’t finished it because I kind of don’t want to finish it and I also need quiet time to really sit down and finish it. This series is up there with Preacher and Sandman for me in my list of all time favorites. It lives in my heart and I was elated to discover that I still like it. This is what shared universe superhero comics could and should be. legend of grimjack volume 1I know I just read the first two volumes of Grimjack, but the experience has stayed with me. I love that world and keep thinking of great ways it could be interpreted for different genres. Right now I’m thinking about a Crackdown/Amazing Spider-Man style video game set in Cynosure where you take on jobs or just spend your day drinking in Munden’s Bar. If you dig Hellboy, B.P.R.D. or 100 Bullets, I think you’ll enjoy Grimjack. Frankenstein Agent Of S.H.A.D.E. Volume 1 War of the MonstersI’ve had a lot of different feelings about DC’s New 52. At first I was upset that “my” versions of the characters would only survive in my trade shelves and long boxes. Then I realized that I don’t really read new issues anymore and I still have my collection (and books I’ve never read from that era) to enjoy. I also realized that I’m almost 30 and have better things to worry about. With that behind me, I was able to dive into various trades with a mostly clear head and enjoyed them for the most part. I appreciate how DC was attempting to hit all different kinds of genres and audiences, of course, not all of those attempts were successful. The least successful tries in my opinion, though, were the books that just failed to set up a basic reason why that book existed aside from “to make money.” I still have a pile of them to read and am getting a sense of the new U, which is kind of fun. secret avengers vol 1 mission to marsEven though I read the second arc of Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers first and the first second, I had a great time reading this “black ops” take on superheroes. Bru writing Captain America/Steve Rogers is always aces in my book, but throwing in a lot of other street level-esque characters was even cooler. I’ve only read these first two volumes, but was satisfied with Brubaker’s ability to create an enjoyable sci-fi/spy mash-up story that felt well contained while still making me want to read more. the return of king dougReturn of King Doug came out of left field for me. It was gifted to me by a pal and I knew nothing about it, but Greg Erb, Jason Oremland and Wook-Jin Clark reminded me so much of the kinds of stories I love from the 80s, but while also doing all kinds of new, funny things I enjoy. Read this now. bprd hell on earth 2 new world gods And MmonstersI’ve said this before, but one of the things I miss most about not working at Wizard anymore is access to all of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics that came out. I’m super behind, but I did get my hands on some B.P.R.D. trades this year for a little catching up (Hell On Earth: New World and Gods And Monsters). That’s still the best damn comic series around and has been for a while. hulk red hulkI don’t mind playing catch-up on some books. I’ve been super happy re-reading things like World War Hulk and catching up on Hulk, Incredible Hulk and Red Hulk this year. Super fun, popcorn books mixed with well thought out ongoing superhero tales filled with monsters? Yeah, I’m all over that. izombie vol 2 uVAmpireI read the first iZombie trade in 2011, but was delighted to get my hands on the second and third volumes in 2012. I wrote about the second one here and have a post in mind talking about the third. Anyway, this series is the rare mix of intriguing characters, wacky situations, rock solid architecture and mythology I want to study PLUS one of the greatest artists the medium has ever seen. So, so, so good. american vampire volume 1I’m pretty surprised there are two Vertigo books on here. It seemed like for a while I was reading nothing from them. Now iZombie and American Vampire are two of my faves. Then again Chris Roberson and Scott Snyder are two of the best newcomer writers around, so that’s no surprise. In this case, Snyder takes two things that have become old and boring — vampires and American history — and makes them both super interesting and intense. Can’t wait to see where the rest of this series goes.batman knightfall volume 1Batman: Knightfall Volume 1 was pure, nostalgic joy. All of the Batman comics that got me into Batman in one place in one fat volume? Yes, yes and yes. I have the second and third volumes waiting to be read. Maybe next month after knocking off a smattering of random trades I want to check out. lost_dogs_cover_sm_lgI don’t remember exactly why I didn’t write about Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs. It’s one of the few books I’ve bought through Comixology for my Kindle Fire. The long and short of it is that this story about a simpleton trying to save his family. It’s raw and rough and hits you in the gut. I don’t know if I liked the experience of reading this story, but it was certainly powerful. I can’t remember if it made me cry or not, but it came close.

I’m certain I missed a few books that I didn’t write about, but this is a pretty solid list by all accounts. I should probably branch out into more diverse trades and graphic novels — and I plan to — but what can I say? I love me some superheroes. I also happen to love all kinds of other comics, so let’s continue to make and talk about awesome comics.

Ex Machina Trade Post Volumes 1-10

I’ve had a very on again, off again relationship with Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ political superhero adventure Ex Machina. Back when the first issue came out in 2004, I picked it up on a whim and the last page reveal that main character Mitchell Hundred’s superhero alter ego The Great Machine saved the second World Trade Center tower didn’t shock or intrigue me as much as it did lots of other people. I wasn’t hooked, so I didn’t bother getting the next issue. I think I got back into the book a few years later while at Wizard when I had access to the trades and recent issues, but I soon fell off the wagon when lateness became a huge issue. Over the years I’ve collected the trades and for my birthday this year, I got the last one I needed from my folks, so I figured it was time to read the entire series from beginning to end.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, Ex Machina stars Hundred a man who was granted the ability to talk to machines thanks to a strange device that exploded all over him. For a while, he used those abilities as a vigilante called The Great Machine, but that was short lived. He decided to unmask and run for mayor of New York City as an independent, something he had no chance of winning until September 11th happened and he saved the second tower. The majority of the series revolves around Hundred as mayor and the various political hurdles he finds himself jumping which cover the gamut of hot button issues from gay marriage and religion to the enforcement of old laws and the legalization of marijuana, but with plenty of flashbacks to his time as the Great Machine. The series jumps around in time quite a bit and has a set up that feels similar to that of Lost–which I’m sure is one of the reasons he was tapped to work on the show for a brief time. I wonder if anyone online has figured out how to tell this story completely chronologically.

SPOILERS AHOY I had a pretty great time reading the series from beginning to just before the end, which frankly I’m still not sure about. I get the feeling from reading this all together and having read some of Vaughan’s other comics like the glorious Y: The Last Man and Doctor Strange: The Oath that he just ran out of steam and possibly interest when it came to Ex Machina and, as a result, just rushed the ending. After building this huge story interweaving superheroics and politics all of which had this looming mystery about where Hundred’s powers came from and why other people seemed to get different variations on his abilities for 9 volumes, the 10th just seems rushed and anti-climactic. I have no problem with the idea that a dimension hopping group created the machine that gave Hundred his powers or the idea that Hundred defied his program and wound up saving his world, but the finale had a “is that it?” quality to it. Making matters worse, it felt like Vaughan was hinting at a much bigger, crazier story that Hundred was preparing himself for as he became Vice President, as if he needed to be in a seat of power in order to save the world from future invasions (or to usher one in) which actually sounds like a more interesting story than the ending I was given.

It’s all the more disappointing when remembering how moving the end of Y: The Last Man was. Not everyone got a happy ending (Ampersand’s almost made me tear up), but they were all treated with respect and they all made sense. That wasn’t the case with Ex Machina. Hundred killed one friend and another professed his love for him (which was completely out of no where) and everything just ends on a shit note. Harris’ usually fantastic art even suffers in these last few issues, which makes it all the worse. The usually robust panels look flat and have a strange effect on them that looks like Tom Goes To The Mayor episodes, which is not a good thing in my book. Harris is the rare artist who started off with one style that I really dug on Starman and completely changed his style in something else I really like and yet, like his partner, he couldn’t end on the same high notes he began on.

Something I’ve come to realize over my years of talking about stories is that, for me, “disappointing” is a much worse designation than “bad.” Something that’s bad, is just bad and that’s it, but something that’s disappointing had my interest and some investment from me and didn’t deliver. It’s like a creative betrayal, but probably shouldn’t be so dramatic. In the case of Ex Machina, the book won me over even after not being too blown away by the first issue so many years ago and a shitty production schedule knocked me back off the ongoing and then completely failed when it came to the ending. The real question I ask myself after I read a trade is “Does this go on the shelf or up for Swap?” My initial feeling after finishing the last book was “dump this junk,” but I’m a little more conflicted. Is this an ending that I will never like or is it the kind of thing that, now that I know how it ends, I’ll know it’s coming and it won’t be so disappointing? It’s a tough call because I dig so much of this comic leading up to ending. It’s such a careful, well-plotted story with plenty of political and social ideas that really took center stage, a good amount of logical superhero moments and even a great mythology that seemed so deliberately paced and revealed that the hurried up ending stings even more. I think I’ll keep the books for now, but instead of the shelf, they’ll go into one of my spill-over long boxes filled with trades that can’t fit on the shelf right now to be read another day when shelf space is more plentiful.

Best Of The Best Trade Post: Starman Omnibus Volume 2

starman omnibus 2STARMAN OMNIBUS VOLUME 2 (DC)
Written by James Robinson, drawn by Tony Harris, Craig Hamilton, John Warkiss, Steve Yeowell, Matt Smith, JH Williams, Bret Blevins, Guy Davis, Wade von Grawbadger, Chris Sprouse and Gary Erksine
Collects Starman #17-29, Showcase ’95 #12, Showcase ’96 #4-5 & Starman Annual #1
For the secret history of how I got to read Starman for the first time, check out today’s Ad It Up which features an ad for the Starman Secret Files & Origins. After having my mind blown so many years ago by the adventures of hip new hero Jack Knight and his journey from 90s hipster to legitimate superhero, it’s actually been since then that I’ve read Starman because of the terrible way the comics were collected (yearly issues pulled out to make their own themed trades, etc.). I was really jazzed a few years ago when DC announced they were going to give this beloved series the same treatment as Jack Kirby comics and reprint everything (and I mean everything) chronologically.

starman 17I thought about saving my reread for the day I had all the Omnibi in my hands, but couldn’t resist. I tackled the first one a while back and didn’t write about it on the blog and then much later I finally got around to reading the second volume. The task is a bit daunting and a little scary because what if I don’t like it as much this time around as I did back then? I had the same fear when I reread Preacher, but I wound up liking it even more. Would that be the same case for Starman?

Mostly yes with a little bit of no. Yes because it’s still a book of amazing quality and no because it doesn’t feel quite as special because this style of storytelling has gone on to become the norm at least at DC (you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a legacy character these days) though not always done this well. While reading through this volume it hit me why the book has resonated with me so much: it’s a book that deals with all these crazy elements like supervillains and demons and magical posters, but it doesn’t let that get in the way of the characters who, after a time, don’t consider these things to be all that crazy. I don’t mean for that to sound like they see these things as blasse necessarily, just that it’s a part of everyday life for these characters, which is something that many superhero comics seem to forget. There’s a difference between boredly talking about a supervillain threat and having a normal conversation with your dad about all the villains you’re trying to keep track of.

starman 22Also, the fact remains that Starman is not really a superhero story. It’s a story about a son (Jack Knight) trying to find a relationship with his father (Ted Knight, the original Starman) and see where that relationship goes once they start having some things in common. Yes, those things happen to be fighting villains and keeping Opal City safe, but Robinson never lets that detract from the emotions and story taking place. It’s also about rehabilitation, if not redemption, especially considering the evolution of The Shade and this volume’s introduction of Bob Benetti, a villain for hire who just got out of jail and is thinking about going back to a life of crime.

The volume is jam packed with goodness, including our heroes facing a demon whose domain resides inside a poster, the first meeting between Golden Age Doctor Fate and the Shade, a pirate-themed Talking With David, Jack Knight teaming up with Wesley Dodds (the original Sandman) in modern times, the Legends Of The Dead Earth annual which was actually pretty fun, Jack doing a solid for the original Mist, a Christmas issue, the trippy origins of the blue skinned Starman Mikaal and the introduction of a lot of time-displaced citizens to Opal. There’s a lot going on, but you get the feeling that Robinson had a game plan from the get go. The poster story is introduced fairly early on in the book, but not really focused on and solved until a while later. Yes there are arcs and more finite storylines, but it’s not like a comic today where it feels like every six issues something new happens because it’s supposed to. This flows like a rive and takes all kinds of twists and turns that are a delight to follow. There’s also lots and lots of references to upcoming storylines.

starman 28And it’s not like just Jack Knight gets the best moments. The last two issues¬† of this collection are some of my favorites and involved Mikaal in the 70s and Bobo Benetti dealing with a moral quandary that ends in a pretty great and unexpected way. This book contains one of the few occasions in which I didn’t want to erase the Royal Flush Gang from existence.

I can’t believe I’ve gone this far without talking about Tony Harris’ art. I mistakenly thought that he did all of the issues until he eventually left the book, but there are plenty of other artists jumping in here and there to do sequences, short stories, fill-ins or random other stories like the Showcase bits. Of course, seeing earlier Guy Davis and JH Williams III is a lot of fun. There are very few art missteps in this whole volume, which is impressive considering how much ground the book covers.

In addition to the reprinted comics which I love, the book also has a great deal of extras. There’s a forward by Harris (whose style has completely changed since the 90s) about his first meeting with Robinson while on a kind of press tour that’s really interesting and a nice look into the world of comic book collaboration. The back of the book has a series of journal entries by the Shade that I didn’t read through, a look at many of DC Direct’s Starman-related products (I want to get my hands on that Tim Bruckner statue) and then Robinson’s ongoing Time’s Past series of afterwards which include a story by story rundown of where he was coming from, what inspired him and/or what he was trying to accomplish with that story. I would anxiously flip to the back after finishing a story to get some inside scoop on the creative process and then jump back to read the next story.

zero month posterIt’s almost a little sad reading this book for a few reasons. First off, Robinson doesn’t seem to have been able to get back up to this high level of writing since, though I do appreciate him using Mikaal in Justice League, but that book’s got a mountain of problems well before Robinson came along. It’s also kind of sad to think that this comic probably wouldn’t get made today. At least not by DC or Marvel, though it is kind of funny that even Starman rolled out of a big event (in this case Zero Hour). Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but a book that’s so densely packed and featuring a cast that includes a hipster, an old man, a gay blue alien, a few Golden Age villains-turned good guys and a family of Irish cops doesn’t sound like the kind of thing the Big Two would sign off on now. You might say “Well, it could be an Image book,” which is true, but what makes Starman so special is that Robinson was able to carve out this little world for himself inside the greater DCU. He pulled from what else was going on around him, using new and established elements and wove them all together into this great thing that’s hard to really describe. Sure, it would have been cool as a book set in it’s own universe, but we wouldn’t have the Shade or the Scalphunter ties or the occasional visits with other heroes and, at least to this longtime comic book fan, that makes the book all the better.