‘The Walking Dead’ Is Dead: 10 Comic Books You Should Have On Your Pull-List [Besides the Walking Dead]

Just kidding. The Walking Dead isn’t dead–it’s undead. And it’s an American classic–if you haven’t read it, you should reconsider your priorities in this life (and the life-to-come). But you know who is dead? Glenn Rhee.

In the wake of last night’s dramatic zombie execution of Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, I’d like to point out that if you’re feeling as if all meaning has drained out of your existence now that your most beloved Action-Adventure Hero has met his demise, perhaps you should branch out.

People are having trouble letting go–there’s speculation that the entrails belonged Nicholas, not to Glenn. The fact that Glenn did not appear in the Talking Dead‘s ritual-outro-“In Memoriam”-segment has some people convinced that he’s not really dead. Look–I mean–yes it’s technically possible that the TV series will completely break away altogether from the comic book’s arc. Stranger things have happened.

But if the show continues to correspond to the comic book even faintly, we’ve got to face facts here, guys: Even if this particular death is a fake-out (which I doubt) the fact is that Glenn’s character has been dead in the comic book for almost four years.

If you’ve been a rabid fan of the The Walking Dead, if you’ve been following the television- series for years and you weren’t aware of this fact–why weren’t you aware of it? Why haven’t you started reading the comic book yet?

WHY? WHY?

Really–I mean to say–I ask you. Don’t you feel even a little bit ashamed of yourself? Mm? What have you been doing that’s so important? Hm? Can’t think of anything? Mm-hah! Just as I suspected.

WELL. I’m here today to suggest to you that perhaps investing in reading The Walking Dead comic book series might be a salve unto to your still-freshly wounded heart. Could be a regular balm of GILEAD, I dare say.

Just think of it: you can experience almost a hundred issues of Glenn from a slightly different perspective, with different inflections previously unknown to you, little episodes from his life that you’ve never seen before etc.

But you’re going to have to pick up the trade-paperbacks because purchasing even just the first floppy-format “No. 1” issue of The Walking Dead is going to cost you a PRET-TY PENNY these days, my lamb.

OR EVEN BETTER You can pick up a comic book series that’s still early in it’s run, and is as-good-as, almost-as-good-as or in a few cases even-BETTER than The Walking Dead.

SIDENOTE:
I’m including only monthly or semi-monthly “mainstream” series–RE: “mainstream”=distributed by Diamond–in this pull-list.(*)

[^^^RE: Foonote at the very bottom of this article]

I’ll do another article on “real” indie, alt-comix that you should be reading in the near future.

1. NAMELESS
by Grant Morrison
ART: Chris Burnham with Nathan Fairbarn
PUBLISHER: Image
RATING: BETTER than The Walking Dead.

The plot of Nameless is so structurally baroque that it’s virtually impossible to describe. I could mention discrete plot elements a la the standard plug that appears on the publisher’s website. But that would actually be almost misleading.

The only point of reference I can think of where the comparison would be functionally descriptive at all would be to say that it’s kind of like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, only way better.

I could say that it recalls or riffs on elements of Alien, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Charles Burns X-ed Out Trilogy, Event Horizon, The Devil’s Advocate, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, H.P. Lovecraft’s best fiction (The Thing On The Doorstep) as well as his most far-out stuff (Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath)–I could go on but what would be the point?

This isn’t a book about a demonically possessed crew of astronauts headed towards an asteroid that is somehow coming out of a Lovecraftian gloss on the Mayan underworld. It isn’t a book about a contagion of murders motivated by an unspeakably malevolent, submerged alien presence. It isn’t even a book about a film-noir-private-eye cum occult-adventurer exploring the frayed boundaries between our world and an unutterably ghastly (and, yes, Lovecraftian) parallel dimension.

I might try to say something like: It’s about the interplay between these different levels of genre-narrative as an analogy for the postmodern dissociative experience of channel-surfing through different levels of consciousness and different trainwrecked and jumbled lexicons of symbolic discourse. But that would also totally fail as a description of what is going on in Nameless.

Just give up now. You won’t be able to imagine this book until you read it.

2. PROVIDENCE
by Alan Moore
ART: Jacen Burrows
PUBLISHER: Avatar
RATING: BETTER than The Walking Dead.

All you need to know about the plot of this comic is that a scholarly gumshoe reporter (name of Robert Black) with vague literary ambitions and a certain secret sexual proclivity is working at a yellow newspaper in 1918 when he starts to investigate rumors about various arcane and unholy manuscripts shortly after the suicide of his lover and things get progressively more…um, let’s say “fishy”…from that point forward.

As far as I can tell, the fact that the two most interesting comic books currently being released are both–to a greater or lesser extent–homages to H.P. Lovecraft is purely coincidental. I mean I’m sure there’s some kind of immanent, ghastly symmetry that lies latent in the collective unconscious of the human species that’s manifesting itself here–sure–but what I’m saying is that I don’t think Alan Moore and Grant Morrison called each other up and coordinated the nearly simultaneous debuts of both of these two heavily Lovecraft-inflected series.

Providence, compared to Nameless, is a slow-burner. It’s subtle. It’s psychologically mature. It’s emotionally complex. The period-dialogue, and attention to local idioms (1919 New England) is pitch perfect. Most of the first few issues are actually relatively quiet and subdued. But don’t be fooled: this is Alan Moore. Things get very intense, psychedelic, and metaphysical soon enough.

Part of the nature of comic books as a medium is that while hundreds of hours of labor may go into the production of a single issue, the reader often burns through it in twenty minutes. You get double the value from Providence, because each issue includes–as a kind of epilogue–a lengthy prose excerpt from Robert Black’s ‘Commonplace Book’ and (usually) a typescript scrap from some other arcane text. Reverend Eli Hillman’s ‘Welcome’ to the Church of St. Jude’s Parish Newsletter (‘And he saith unto them, come ye after me, and I will make you fishes of men‘) appearing at the end of issue No. 3 is particularly haunting, gruesomely hilarious and masterfully done.

Jacen Burrows’ art is ultra-detailed, realistic and a just lee-ttle bit stiff. Lovingly obsessive attention is paid to pouring on the historically accurate period detail. Overall, Burrows work reminds me of We Stand On Guard’s Steve Skroce (who is a very talented artist), but I like Burrows work best between the two. In his finest moments, Burrows reminds me a bit of Brian Bolland–and we all know what happened when Moore and Bolland teamed up back in the 80’s. The way Burrows has been able to draw the strange residents of–sa, for example Salem–in this book as slightly “batrachian“* while still maintaining them as convincingly “human”–riding this razor edge of weirdness in their facial bone structure and their pallid features is really brilliant. The dreamscape wrap covers are really stunning: particularly the tableau of massacred ancient aliens lying impaled by arrows in a stone courtyard, ankle-deep in their own blood amidst the ruins of a burning city from some alternative reptilian antiquity that’s featured on the cover of #3.

The colors in this book by Juan Rodriguez are also quietly ingenius…greens are bumped up in a lot of scenes to give everything a sickly, eerie, subterranean vibe. The palette tends to be kind of “sewery” or something–greens, browns, grays and cold stony blues drenched in ignis fatuus. Atmospherics in every issue are brilliant. Really well done.

There’s an interesting blog that delves into the historical minutiae referenced in the series called “Facts In The Case of Alan Moore’s Providence.” But SPOILER ALERT! Obviously you’re not going to want to check out this blog until you are caught up to the latest issue of the comic book series it addresses itself to.

3. AIRBOY
by James Robinson
ART: Glenn Hinkle
PUBLISHER: Image
RATING: Better than the Walking Dead–but I’m biased.

Authors have been playing around with meta-fictional experiments since at least sometime in the 1960’s. Apparently William Gass coined the term in some essay from a book about literary forms or whatever. Here’s the money-shot passage from that essay (NOTE: You don’t have to read the whole thing if you find yourself getting bored midway through the first sentence).

gass 2

I actually love a lot of what Gass writes at other stages in his career, but this particular essay (“Philiosophy and the Future of Fiction“) is a SERIOUS snooze. He actually ends the essay–I kid you not, these are the last two sentences of the essay–by saying: “This is in a sense a fundamental subject of the novel, but I have gone on far too long and I do beg your pardon. Thank you very much.” I swear that I am not making this up–if you don’t believe me go look it up.

The reason that I’ve reproduced this passage was not to put you to sleep or to make you feel mildly depressed about how boring it is to read this passage. My point is that Gass here is saying–and he’s saying it back in the 60’s, remember–that the problem of metafiction hasn’t been solved yet. That monumental task was left for James Robinson and Greg Hinkle to complete.

Most metafiction sucks–it’s pretentious, arid, intellectually masturbatory etc. But there are exceptions to this rule. I think some of the best/most-interesting, worth-reading literary metafiction has come out in the last decade or so (How Should a Person Be, The Pale King, The Book of Numbers, Walking to Hollywood etc.). It’s like something about the social media age has skewed our collective psyche in such a way that the best metafiction comes across as more honest, raw, real, and powerful than the best “pure fiction.”

And this tendency–the tendency towards emotionally ‘authentic’ metafiction–has started to manifest in comic books. Five or maybe six of the comics on this top ten list have metafictional elements*, but Airboy is straight up hardcore metafiction. And it is also straight-up searingly honest, vulnerable, artfully unsentimental but empathically drenched autobiographical memoir at its very best–with an added element that this story is being delivered more or less in real time. James Robinson is going through a very real crisis in his life and he’s writing about it as it happens–however exaggerated or distorted the fictional version maybe–without knowing how things are ultimately going to turn out. Will he ever be happy, be able to have a mutually satisfying long-term monogamous relationship? I don’t know. And neither does James Robinson.

Greg Hinkle’s illustrative style straddles the disjoint between “realism” and “the cartoon” in this really interesting, deranged, mildly dissociative, effective, and affecting way. The result is powerful, emotional, insane and–overall–fun. I want to emphasize that last adjective. This series is really, really fun. What this new version of Airboy manages to pull-off is to do something that is incredibly artistically sophisticated and ironically layered without sacrificing even an ounce of the flat, bright, totally straightforward fun that comics have been about since Airboy‘s antediluvian, Nazi-infested Golden Age incarnation made his debut.

In the drab and heavily drugged present-tense of Robinson & Hinkle things get purple as psychotropics take effect, but most of the time they register in a narrow bandwidth off-greens and creams. The restrained minimalist palette–flat-toned mints, matte limes, cosmic latte beiges–used to represent the “real world” of Robinson & Hinkle over and against the full-spectrum reality of Airboy’s World War II universe is, like, just CRUSHINGLY brilliant. Think Pleasantville in reverse.

Restrained palettes have been around forever as a droll, vintage side-effect of the economics of cheap printing processes in the Gold and Silver Age of comics, but they’ve recently undergone somewhat of a Renaissance beginning a while back–think Daniel Clowes Ghost World–and hitting their stride aesthetically in Matt Hollingsworth and Cris Peters coloring work on Fraction’s Hawkeye and Casanova series. But Airboy represents the apotheosis of the trend and so far as I can tell Hinkle gets the credit for that (Hinkle is listed as the artist and there is no colorist mentioned in the credits, so I’m assuming Hinkle is the colorist on this book).

Airboy is possibly the most bold and experimental comic book unfolding in the mainstream at time-of-writing and it’s also maybe the most fun to read. Seriously: Check this book out.

*Saga, Sex Criminals, Casanova, Negative Space, Airboy and maybe Paper Girls.

4. MIRACLEMAN
by Neil Gaiman (orig. Alan Moore)
ART:Mark Buckingham
PUBLISHER: Marvel
RATING: BETTER than The Walking Dead.

IMG_1899

Marvelman’s Eclipse Era–during which he was renamed Miracleman and written by both Alan Moore & Neil Gaiman, back to back–is, in a way, ground zero for contemporary comic books. Miracleman is basically the Yardbirds of comic-book series.

This is Alan Moore before Watchmen, Neil Gaiman before Sandman. It’s this beautiful transitional moment before the evolutionary leap that came to be called “the graphic novel” is born–before it had a name. Sure, sure R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman had been laboring in obscurity for well over a decade by this time. But this is the moment that the idea that comic books could be reinvented as a totally valid art-form–an art-form whose production could be competitive with the aesthetic achievements of the literary novel, the “great” painting or the “serious” film–is just starting to gain traction in the minds of the brand-managers and distributors who had access to the mass-market. Miracleman is like the first shot fired.

Marvel is reprinting the sadly aborted Neil Gaiman/Mark Buckingham run from #17-24 (#25 was completed but–in the IP battle following Eclipse’s bankruptcy–it was never printed). If the resurrected Miracleman was merely a re-issue that would be awesome news, but it wouldn’t earn the series a place on this list. But there’s more: Neil Gaiman & Buckingham are being is given the opportunity to complete the remaining 9 issues of the 18 issue story arc they began 30 years ago. Pretty amazing. Anticipation is high.

This is the first time I’ve read the old Miracleman and it’s incredible. NOTE: Definitely make the extra-effort to pick up the Alan Moore story-arcs that precede Gaiman’s run–they’ve been recently reprinted as trades. Highest possible recommendation on this one guys. It may shoot up to number one as Gaiman steps into finish the arc the arc he began at the very beginning of his storied career.

5. SAGA
by Brian K. Vaughan
ART:Fiona Staples
PUBLISHER: Image
RATING: BETTER than the Walking Dead.

Wikipedia’s plot summary of Saga will basically suffice for our purposes.

“The series is heavily influenced by Star Wars and is based on ideas Vaughan conceived both as a child and as a parent. It depicts a husband and wife from long-warring extraterrestrial races, Alana and Marko, fleeing authorities from both sides of a galactic war as they struggle to care for their daughter, Hazel, who is born in the beginning of the series, who occasionally narrates the series as an unseen adult.”

The only thing I feel like I need to add here is that the visuals provided by Fiona Staples–who also does the new Archie with Mark Waid–are really, really lush and beautiful.

The last time I checked, Saga is the best-selling monthly comic book on the racks. And it deserves to be.

It’s by far the most accessible book on this list–meaning that people from different class backgrounds, age-groups and levels of education will be able to derive joy from this book in equal measure. In many cases–or, let’s face it, even in most cases–a book’s ‘accessibility’ is, roughly speaking, in inverse proportion to it’s aesthetic quality or psychological depth. IE: The number of copies by which Fifty Shades of Gray outsold Bad Behavior or My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up is roughly equal to the degree by which Mary Gaitskill or Stephan Elliot are better writers than writers than E.L. James.

This equation does not hold up with Saga, and there’s something very gratifying about that. Here’s what it means: It means that “the comic-book-buying-public” has–by and large–better taste than “the book-buying-public.” Statistically. And I like that idea. Nevermind that “the comic-book-buying-public” also belongs–as a tiny sub-set–to “the book-buying public” or the fact that its discerning taste probably correlates with its relative numeric tiny-ness. Nevermind all that. Let me bask, just for a moment, in the idea that “we” are better than “they” are–“they” being the faceless mob of all literate peoples on the earth.

Saga is a space-opera. I like to say that it’s “in the tradition of Starlin’s Dreadstar.” I like to say it because in some ways Dreadstar was my last big fling with being a kid or with childhood and Saga was–while far from being the first comic I read as a grown-up–the first mainstream comic book that I put on my monthly pull-list at my local comic shop. I read the full canonical run of Dreadstar in 6th grade. (That would include the Metamorphosis Odyssey published in Epics Illustrated, The Graphic Novel, and issues of 1-30, 31, or maybe 32 of the solo-series. You can stop reading after that.) I graduated from X-Men to Dreadstar and from Dreadstar to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and from there to being a boring grown-up. Dreadstar is a great, great series and I highly recommend reading it.

Up until pretty recently I said publicly, proudly and often that Dreadstar was, is and ever shall be “The Greatest Space Opera Ever Written.”

But the deeper we get into Saga the more I’m afraid I get that I’m just projecting this analogy between the two series. Because the deeper we get, the more I’m beginning to suspect that Saga might actually end up being “The Greatest Space Opera Ever Written.”

6. SEX CRIMINALS
by Matt Fraction
ART: Chip Zdarsky
PUBLISHER: Image
RATING: As good as the Walking Dead.

IMG_1897

A la Wikipedia.

“Suzie, a librarian, and Jon, an actor, meet at a party and, after sleeping together, they discover that they share the ability to freeze time when they orgasm. As their relationship develops and their sexual histories are explored, they decide to rob the bank where Jon works in order to save Suzie’s endangered library.”

Sex Criminals has the distinction of being the only comic book appearing on this list that is not only awesome, but is also genuinely, politically and culturally revolutionary. It is sex-positive, feminist, gender-bending, LGBT affirming, critical of late-capitalist values, critical of hyperconsumerist values, affirming of psychoanalytic investigations of subjectivity, affirming of sexual freedom–I could go on and on. It’s artistically “postmodern” in all of the ways that postmodernism is cool, and in none of the ways in which postmodernism is boring and pretentious. It is really, really awesome and OMG I love it so much. Also NSFW, just FYI–duh!

SIDENOTE: NSFW unless you are Jen Maher gender-studies professor at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, role-model and fawned-upon personal icon of gender-fluid (but mostly female) co-eds the world over.

7. CASANOVA
by Matt Fraction (Michael Chabon)
ART:Fabio Moon, Gabriel Bá
PUBLISHER: Image
RATING: Mixed–sometimes as good as the Walking Dead, sometimes better, sometimes worse.

To paraphrase Image’s blurb for “Casanova Vol. 3: Avaritia“….

[Blurb spoken in movie-preview voice-over-“In-A-World”-voice]

CASANOVA QUINN USED TO LOVE HIS JOB…
ASSASSINATING ALIENS AND SUPER-SPIES…
BETWEEN FROLICS WITH DANGEROUS NINJA SEX GODDESSES…
UNTIL HE WAS ASSIGNED TO A NEW MISSION…

IGNITING INTERDIMENSIONSAL HOLOCAUSTS…
DESTROYING WHOLE UNIVERSES…
BY ASSASSINATING OTHER-DIMENSIONAL VERSIONS OF HIMSELF…
WAS EASY…
UNTIL CASANOVA MET THE MAN DESTINED TO DESTROY HIS LIFE…
HIMSELF…
FROM THE FUTURE…

Warren Ellis has said, about Casanova, “Casanova is basically the best science-fiction serial in the world right now.”

I would slightly modify this statement to say, “Casanova is–in a complex, and highly contingent sense–the best science fiction serial in the world right now.”

Casanova is Matt Fraction both at his best and his worst. And Matt Fraction is very, very good.

There are fourteen comic books on this pull-list. Seven of them are by some of the most seasoned and deservedly celebrated comic-book pros of all time.

One of them is an Archie comic book drawn by Francesco Francavilla (RE: Black Mirror etc.) and focusing primarily on a Zombie Invasion of Riverdale. Nuff said.

One is by a serious long-term-devoted comics-dude who is nevertheless–relatively speaking–a total rookie, whose eight writing credits include a My Little Ponies one-shot (a My Little Ponies one-shot which, I must confess, I would like to read now that I’ve discovered that it exists).

A Brian K. Vaughan title ended up landing in the top ten and another Vaughan title wound up in the honorable mentions.

The other three titles are written by Matt Fraction, who is the best professional mainstream comic-books writer of his generation.

Fraction is not Richard McGuire. In some ways he’s better than Richard McGuire, and on his worst days he’s just really, really good. Casanova is his baby.

And speaking of “the best science fiction serial in the world right now” Casanova is way more cerebral and challenging and difficult than Saga. It is not particularly heartwarming, the characters rarely elicit any real sympathy or sense of identification. The art that Moon and Bá bring to the book is beautiful and much more stringently ‘illustrative’ or ‘graphic’ (as opposed to realist) and much more experimental than the work that Staples does on Saga. The series is simultaneously a tribute to and a parody of it’s own genre influences: “time-traveling and multi-dimensional plot twists are pushed to a kind of manic, absurdist outer-limit,” sex with super-spy babes as a canonically formalized but still slightly pathetic& hilarious exercise-in-wish-fulfillment–an exercise carried-out by nebbish, nerdy male authors. That sort of irony is punted around a bit. There’s a lot of self-reflexive structural punning and parody of genre-clichés.

Did I mention that Michael Chabon–the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay–is writing a back-up story tacked on to the end of every issue of Casanova that’s coming out right now?

Michael Chabon is writing a back-up tacked on to the end of every issue of Casanova that’s coming out right now.

And it’s called The Metanauts and it’s awesome and it’s gradually converging with the main narrative of the book so that at some point the two stories will intersect. That’s right: Michael Chabon, critical darling of basically 100% of the East-Coast, Cape-Cod, Cabin-in-the-Hamptons-American Literati–hey, I love his work too*–is the opening act for Matt Fraction right now.

There is nothing else out there that is even remotely similar to Casanova. If you’re in the right mood, there is absolutely no substitute. If you want to turn of your mind, if you need a pick-me-up, a balm for your spirit, or a lazy beach read–in those cases you’re going to want to reach for Saga before Casanova.

*Especially Mysteries of Pittsburgh which is his homage to The Great Gatsby except that for–like–at least the first hundred pages or so it’s even better than The Great Gatsby.

8. NEGATIVE SPACE
by Ryan K. Lindsey
ART:Owen Gieni
PUBLISHER:Dark Horse
RATING: Almost as good as the Walking Dead.

Dark Horse’s plug for this series is pretty good, “When one man’s writer’s block gets in the way of his suicide note, he goes for a walk to clear his head and soon uncovers a century-old conspiracy dedicated to creating and mining the worst lows of human desperation.” Only two issues into Negative Space, but it’s been a stellar kick-off and Lindsey and Gienie have got me expecting great things. The artwork is awesome–redolent of Farel Dalrymple or Sam Kieth’s “The Maxx,” but with a flair that is unique to Mr. Owen Gieni.

9. SANDMAN
by Neil Gaiman
ART: J.H. Williams III
PUBLISHER:DC/Vertigo
RATING: See below

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 11.29.50 PM

I’m super-conflicted about the new Sandman, predictably. It’s really good. At this point, I don’t think it’s as good as the original was at its peak–meaning Gaiman’s original run, not the earlier Kirby series, which is a totally weird masterpiece in it’s own right. I prefer the classically graphic approach to the art taken in the first series by artists like Sam Kieth, Dringenburg, Bachalo, Vess et. al–book-ended by Dave McKean’s dark abstractions–versus the painterly approach that’s being taken by Williams III.

But don’t get me wrong: the art is really good throughout and occasionally it’s really amazing. The story is very, very good. This is probably some of Neil Gaiman’s best work since–well, since Sandman, frankly.

That’s the problem with situations like this. If you try to take one of the best–for some people the best–comic book series/run/author of all time, pause it for 20 years, and then turn it back on… results are probably going to be good, but you can expect some emotional turbulence.

Results will be uniformly better than when the same experiment is performed with a rock band. However, even in the best case scenario there will still probably be some anxiety on the part of the reader who’s waited out the decades patiently. You can expect yourself to over-analyze everything and then try to rationalize away all of the irrelevant details you noticed when you were being overly-analytical. Contradictory internal monologues arguing with one another?–you’ll have some of that.

Whether you’re talking about meeting an old friend or reading a latter-day reincarnation of an old comic book: If you are hoping for the experience that you had 20 years ago you’re going to end up with mixed feelings because you are different person than you were 20 years ago. You have different brain-chemistry and life experiences–nevermind what’s happened to the author, you are a different reader. And when I say “you” in that sentence, I mean “I.”

So I just can’t pass judgment on the new incarnation at this point. I don’t know if it’s better, as good as, or not quite as good as The Walking Dead and I can’t trust my own feelings or instincts in regards to this question. I haven’t spent enough time with the new story yet. Gaiman’s first-run on the series didn’t get up to full steam until the Doll’s House arc and it didn’t hit full cruising altitude until The Season of Mists.

Regardless of what happens: you should be reading this series. In case you haven’t read the first series you should also definitely do that.

10. BATMAN
by Scott Snyder
ART: Greg Capullo
PUBLISHER: DC
RATING: See below.

There are thousands of Batman stories–the title has been around for over 75 years.

But there are only a few Perfect Batman Stories. At least for the time being, you could almost count them on your fingers because–according to my tally–only 10.8 presently exist.

To be crystal-clear on what constitutes a Perfect Batman Story:

Given the historical, administrative and material context structuring the environment out of which the story springs, it cannot be improved.

For example:

*Batman With Robin Boy-Wonder No. 1 (Kane, 1940) in which Batman’s origin is first articulated, and in which the Joker is introduced, murders his first millionaire, begins the evolution of signature style of crime (which often involves the use of poison-gas)

AND

*”Slayride” by Paul Dini appearing in Detective Comic # 826
–in which the Joker hits a gnarly lick with Robin bound and gagged, riding shotgun…

ARE EQUIVALENTLY GREAT BATMAN STORIES given the historical and administrative contexts in which they were created. They are equally interesting, compelling masterpieces within the form. But NEITHER of them are PERFECT BATMAN STORIES because there are other stories that are undeniably more awesome, perfect etc.

If we’re talking in terms of PERFECT BATMAN STORIES that means that no other Batman story–whether it exists currently, or has yet to be written–will ever be “better”.

Which means that all Perfect Batman Stories–while totally singular and possessed of their very own special flavor–are equal-to but not greater-than ANY and ALL other Perfect Batman Stories. You may have a personal favorite, but if you’re fair-minded you will be forced to admit that–after diligently re-reading the canonical texts–all the other Perfect Batman Stories can be seen as equal in stature as an ideal referents pointing towards The-Very-Best-Batman-Story-Of-All-Time.

The-Very-Best-Batman-Story-Of-All-Time, according to its fundamental ontology, never manifests as an actually-articulated story, but remains eternally in an abstract, semi-Platonic state of unrealized and unrealizable potentiality.

Frank Miller wrote two perfect Batman stories (The Dark Knight Returns, Year One). Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both wrote one (The Killing Joke & Arkham Asylum: Serious House On Serious Earth, respectively).

It might justifiably be argued that Neil Gaiman wrote one (Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader). Even though I might personally believe that “What Happened To The Caped Crusader” is a Perfect Batman Story, I’m going to exclude it from the master-list because I know that I’m too biased to make the final judgment call on that one.

Jeph Loeb wrote three Batman stories that could all be considered edge-cases (The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, Hush). The sum of these three stories–according to my calculus–count as 1.9 Perfect Batman Stor(y/ies).

Scripts written by Sam Hamm and Christopher Nolan (with Jonathan Nolan) might be cited as far-out edge cases (Batman 1989, The Dark Knight) but I’m not going to count them. In my personal and–I’ll admit–fairly stringent accounting, Azzarello’s The Joker, Dini’s “Slayride”, “Batman No. 1” (Kane, 1940) and Rucka & Brubaker’s Soft Targets all deserve honorable mentions, but they don’t quite make the cut. Just to be scrupulous I’d add that the many incredible story arcs from Grant Morrison’s latter-day, pre-New 52 run on Batman should count as almost one Perfect Batman Story–let’s say 0.9 Perfect Batman Stor(y/ies).

Scott Snyder has written four–four–Perfect Batman Stories (Black Mirror, Court of Owls*, Death of the Family, Zero Year**).

He’s written one Batman story that I would argue is an edge-case (Endgame). For the sake of fairness, I’m going to exclude Endgame from this count.

If we agree that Snyder has four Perfect Batman Stories under his belt at this point, the final score would be as follows:

Alan Moore:1
Grant Morrison:1.9
Jeph Loeb:1.9
Frank Miller: 2
Scott Snyder:4

Not even close.

So: Is Scott Snyder the best Batman storyteller of all time?

If this was ultimately a numbers game (which it isn’t) than Scott Snyder would win the title of greatest Batman storyteller hands down (eg. Black Mirror by itself is roughly equal in length to the combined length of Dark Knight Returns and Year One).

As things stand, he is competitive with Frank Miller for the title of “All-Time Best Batman Storyteller.”

Frank Miller has the unfair advantage–and the honor–of historical priority. He wrote the first perfect Batman stories–and in my opinion they are a kind of dyad, each reinforcing the perfection of the other. Scott Snyder has the unfair advantage of having read of Frank Miller in his childhood. To my mind, they stand as equals.

WITH THAT SAID…

Unfortunately–and I really, really hate to put this down in print–I’m afraid Snyder’s streak may be coming to an end. Let me be clear: I HOPE that I’m wrong about this. I really do.

I’ve said, fairly recently, that we are in the middle of “Batman’s Second Golden Age” (the first one having taken place in the late-80’s). I’m hoping that we weren’t actually at the tail-end of the second golden age when I said that. As recently as six months ago, Snyder & Capullo’s Batman would have been number three or four on my personal pull-list.

Now I’m not so sure. With the upcoming hiatus announced by Greg Capullo (whose artwork has added an incredible dynamism to Snyder’s storytelling for years now) and with the ongoing title in the middle of the least successful Batman story-arc so far attempted by Snyder the staying power of the book as “the torch-bearer of a golden age” is somewhat in question.

The current story is not uninteresting due to any lack of ambition or effort on Snyder’s part–it’s an incredibly ambitious story. It’s just that I think it’s a bold move that will ultimately turn out to be a failure, aesthetically speaking. Every artist should be given scope to fail. Unfortunately if you’re a comic book artist working in the DC or Marvel Universe, your mistakes remain with you as part of the universe’s continuity. And the bold, brave, interesting mistakes Snyder has made over the past few months are of the sort that I’m afraid will be very hard to recover from. The shift of focus away from psychologically interesting villains and towards “super-powered” villains particularly grieves me.

Again, I hope that I’m wrong. If I am, I will be the first fanboy repenting and singing Snyder’s praises when he returns to form.

*Volume 2 of the Court of Owls story-arc, “City of Owls” is not a Perfect Batman Story.
**I’m counting Zero-Year as one story, rather than as two volumes.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

ODY-C
by Matt Fraction
ART: Christian Ward
PUBLISHER: Image

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 12.14.09 AM

Matt Fraction does a gender-bent, psychedelic remix of Homer’s Odyssey with mouth-watering, hypnagogically colorful visuals provided by Christian Ward. The conceit is ambitious in the extreme, and the results so far are commendable but predictably somewhat uneven. The art however is solid and remains at a level of sublimity that recalls painted work from early issues of Heavy Metal, Epics Illustrated and other *achem* even more adult comic books drawn and painted by artists like Milo Manara and Arthur Suydam.

PAPER GIRLS
by Brian K. Vaughn
ART: Cliff Chang
PUBLISHER: Image

This comic book reads like it’s going to be Brian K. Vaughan’s love-letter to growing up in the late-80’s only as a girl, in a town that finds itself suddenly infested with malefic, possibly alien ninjas. The art by Cliff Chang is stellar. This series seems like a solid bet, but we’re only one issue in so it’s too early to call.

THE COVENANT
by Rob Liefield
ART: Matt Horak
PUBLISHER: Image

OR “A WELL-MEANING BUT SLIGHTLY TOO-LONG APOLOGIA FOR ROB LIEFELD”

At this point in my life, I’ve read William Faulkner and spent a lot of time in museums staring at paintings by guys like Barnet Newman, and I’ve watched more than my fair share of movies directed by Pasolini. I occasionally (but also, I’d like to emphasize, voluntarily) listen to and sometimes even enjoyavant-garde free-jazz.

But none of that stuff is ever going to deliver anything like the transcendental aesthete’s adrenaline rush that I got as a nine-year old kid whenever I walked through the doors of Grand Slam Comics in the small Iowa town where I grew up and saw the new issue of X-Men by Chris Claremont & Jim Lee or X-Force by Fabian Nicieza & Rob Liefeld sitting there on the “NEW THIS WEEK” rack.

Yes, interview transcripts would tend to indicate that Todd McFarlane is kind of a prick in person. (In fact, Todd McFarlane kind of reminds of my now-deceased Uncle Bob, a working-class Chicago native). But this fact had exactly zero-effect on the jouissance-spiked, infernal palpitations of exquisite pleasure that I experienced poring over the early issues of Spawn drawn and written by Todd McFarlane.

^^^^^^
(A classic Marc Silvestri panel during his artistic peak mid-Inferno.)
And, yes, even as a 10-year-old I recognized that Marc Silverstri’s work on CyberForce was rather hollow and frothy in the wake of the burning fury and immortal beauty of the work that he did on Wolverine and the Uncanny X-Men–but the former did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the latter.

And what this all adds up to is that I will love those guys forever no matter what they do. Yes, I recognize that Youngblood sucks when perused in the historical rearview mirror of adulthood. But I was thrilled to discover Jim Lee’s Batman stuff when I returned to comic books as a grown-up. Great stuff! And, yes, The Covenant is on my pull-list.

Why is it on my pull-list? Because it’s a great comic book! Is its artistic and historical vision as masterful as Maus or From Hell or even Before Watchmen? No, but it’s a great comic book and I love it.

As a candidate for a comic-book adaptation the blood-drenched poetry of Samuel is ideal–Liefeld couldn’t have picked a better book to turn into a comic-book. His adaptation is obviously deeply informed, his angle on the story is insightful, and I would even say brilliantly achieved five issues in. I repeat: the work is very strong.

Aside from R. Crumb’s Genesiswhich is sort of a special caseI can’t think of a comic-book adaptation of Biblical material that hasn’t totally sucked and/or derived all of its value sheerly from an unintentional camp dimension. Liefeld, even this late in the game, may very well be doing something groundbreaking with The Covenant.

I really don’t understand the ideologically rigid stance of bigotry that’s developed towards Liefeld. Or, okay–actually, I do understand it.

Liefeld has become the symbolic scapegoat that stands-in for a diffuse network of executive decisions and impersonal historical forces that manifested themselves in the early 90’s resulting in a comics-boom unrivaled since the early days of the Golden Age, which lasted for a few years and was followed by an industry-wide meltdown which shook the medium to its foundations and led to a long depression for professionals working within the form.

There were three major factors that led to this meltdown.

No. 1- Rampant speculation about the value of comic book back-issues resulting from a kind of weird convergence of the buoyant art-market of the 1980’s, the American media’s appetites for novelty and tales of unlikely financial triumph, and the response to this convergence of buzz from within the industry itself manifesting as a blind rush to leverage the temporary perceptual distortion for every penny that could be squeezed out of it by minting gimmick books as if they were the federal reserve–special-editions, fancy alternate covers, stunts like the Death of Superman and a junkyard of new #1’s every month.

No. 2- The incipient, but relentlessly accelerating economic & historical tendency of the internet–which was just being introduced to the mass-market at the time–to gut the profit-model of all forms of print-media. The internet effected comic-books tangentially in the 1990’s rather than directly. It wasn’t so much that people started reading comic books online–they didn’t. It was the fact that the entire industrial infrastructure of printed material as a media-format was starting its long free-fall.

No. 3- The most consequential and ultimately catastrophic of the factors that led to the 90’s comic book meltdown was doubtless Marvel’s public offering on Wall St. which made it answerable to the blind, ravenous demands of institutional investors hungry for rapidly, steadily and constantly increasing profits.

Note that Rob Liefeld is not on this list. Unlike many of the worst offenders, Liefeld is not working in NYC’s finanical district today bundling IP or formulating new evermore toxic forms systems of arbitrage. Rob Liefeld is making comic books–because comic books are one of the great loves of his life. This is quite obvious: This is a man who has devoted most of his life to creating awesome comic books. Regardless of the fact that he may not the greatest comic book artist who has ever lived–though I would argue that he’s easily in the top 100–I don’t understand where people get off spewing hatred on Rob Liefeld as a result of this devotion.

I feel like Liefeld alone has been picked out to absorb the resentment and outrage knotted up around the whole epiphenomenon of the Comic Book Crash that happened in the early 90’s which–at this point–is like a vestigial memory in the collective consciousness of comic-book readers and professionals, one that has burned itself into the very shape and texture of the industry’s business model and into the whole universe of aesthetic decisions related to that model.

The crash resulted from hubris operating on the bandwidth of business and financial strategies. But resentment towards Rob Liefeld manifests as criticisms of his artwork.

Do people try to crucify Dennis O’Neil because his work on Batman wasn’t as strong–say for example–Grant Morrison’s? No they don’t. When analyzing the legacy of Fabian Nicieza have people tended to focus on the relative failure of titles like Nomad, while mysteriously developing amnesia about the impact that he had writing New Mutants, X-Men vol. 2, X-Force and Cable? No, absolutely not.

Look: Rob Liefeld was never trying to be the next Barry Windsor-Smith or the next Jim Starlin or the next John Byrne. All that he–along with Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and to a somewhat lesser-extent Todd McFarlane–was trying to do was to be the next, even-cooler wave of Art Adams-es and Marc Silvestris. That’s it. That’s what they were trying to do. And they succeeded in doing so magnificently–beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. They shouldn’t be punished for that. And aside from Rob Liefeld, they aren’t being punished for it.

So, in conclusion: If you have any interest in violent adaptations of Biblical narrative you should totally read The Covenant.

Matt Horak is getting the job done as an artist–I have no doubt he’s pouring his heart out and busting his ass–but I have to say that I wish Liefeld was drawing the book. And so does every other 30+ year old man reading The Covenant primarily due to the fact that he fell in love with comic books at a historical moment when Liefeld represented the evolutionary apex of the form’s native language: “the human figure, only cooler and with cool guns and stuff.”

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
ART: Francesco Francavilla
PUBLISHER: Archie Comics

Archie + Zombies. ‘Nuff said.

[The Featured Image of this article, as well as all other images appearing in this article, derive from photographs taken by author and maybe considered CC BY-SA]