Here we are at year's end, and as absolutely every TV show and website in the entire world does, it's time for Crave Online to start busting out the Best-Ofs. 2011 saw big shakin's in Marvel comics (not as big as DC, but we'll leave the quality vs. quantity debate to youse guys), and not everything worked out as well as they might have hoped. However, there's some really good stuff going on with Disney's darlings, so let's do the traditional countdown of what we thought were the coolest ongoing series. The sooner you read this list, the sooner you can yell at me for being HORRIBLY WRONG.
So, let the arbitrary judgment and ranking of art begin!
10. SECRET AVENGERS
This book started the year under Ed Brubaker and ended it under Warren Ellis, so it earned its place on sheer talent alone. This is the only Avengers title currently going for people who are not fans of Brian Michael Bendis and who are not ready for Normal Osborn to be back. Instead, it’s just giving us straightforward adventure stories with a crew of characters we like to see on adventures. Even when Fear Itself jammed its face into things and gummed up the works a bit, Nick Spencer wrote a few issues that at least tried to inject some humanity into the Michael Bay-styled proceedings. For the most part, though, Secret Avengers has been good, clean fun.
9. CAPTAIN AMERICA
Another Ed Brubaker venture that was derailed by Fear Itself, although he would tell you it was just serendipity that he was planning to fake the death of Bucky Barnes and Matt Fraction’s story gave him the perfect opportunity. Still, you know Brubaker would have paced it better, and instead, he had to completely rename the title Captain America and Bucky for a few issues to spin his wheels telling Bucky flashback stories until he could jump back into the modern day with Fear Itself 7.1 and explain to angry fanboys what was actually happening. Most of that would normally sink a title, but this is Ed Brubaker we’re talking about – the modern master of Cap. Juggling the book deftly between Bucky’s run-in with Baron Zemo that leads to him being dropped in a Russian gulag and Steve Rogers coming to terms with the inevitability of becoming Captain America again, this was still a solid book all around.
8: RED HULK
Given the obnoxious bombast with which Jeph Loeb launched this character, it’s refreshing now to see that he’s quietly being really compelling under Jeff Parker’s guiding hand in the background of the Marvel universe. Sure, he’s an Avenger, and was co-opted by Bendis during Fear Itself, but rather than kvetch, Parker used that opportunity to turn his Hulk book into a villain book, showcasing the new M.O.D.O.K.’s brave and self-serving stand against the Nazi hordes. The rest of the time, Parker’s been neatly establishing a bunch of new supervillains in nontraditional ways, giving his title character his own unique rogues gallery with Zero/One, the Black Fog, and the Sultan Magus. He’s even made good hay out of Loeb's silly sucker-punch of the Watcher, turning it into a new cosmic threat in the Omegex. He's also given Thunderbolt Ross his own Thunderbolt Ross in the form of General Reginald Fortean, who’s becoming an even more effective Thunderbolt than the original was. If that’s not enough, he’s also reinforcing the consequences of Ross’ actions during the Fall of the Hulks by illustrating how pathetic his personal life has become, with his only friends being Life Model Decoy robots.
HONORABLE MENTION: Parker is also writing Thunderbolts, which almost made the list due to sheer unpredictability – who would’ve thought their Fear Itself tie-in malarkey would end up catapulting the B-team into a time-jumping saga? Also, we mention it here because it’s past time for a Thunderbolt/Thunderbolts crossover adventure. Bring it, 2012.
7. THE INCREDIBLE HULKS
Greg Pak had one of the most defining runs on the Jade Giant with his five-year stint which ended this year in a blaze of madcap glory. After putting Green Genes through the motions of exiling him to brutal planets, making him a tragic widower and running him through the gamut of disturbing forms of fatherhood, Pak allowed himself to have a blast in his last hurrah, putting the Hulk in a tuxedo for a while and pulling a James Bond riff, and then ending it all by having a crazy wishing well fiasco featuring Wendigo, the Bi-Beast and recalling a one-off Defenders joke where Umar schtupped the Hulk – allowing him to make up for his poor showing in the sack back in those Salad-Brain days. Even with this much bombastic fun going around, there was still this gut-punch marital divide going on between Bruce Banner and his estranged ex-wife Betty Ross, who is now an inhibitionless She-Hulk herself. Pak would often tease us with the notion of going off the rails with these characters, only to bring them back around in a way that made sense with who they are, instead of forcing his point of view onto them without justification. With a character generally defined by his angst and misery, Pak was good enough to send off Jade Jaws with an actual happy ending – and he’s right. We didn’t see that coming.
Rick Remender has had an incredible year (and he’s fixin’ to best that by taking over Secret Avengers next month), and there’s no better place to talk about it than how he’s managed to take an overdone 90s thing like Venom and make it into a deep, dark, twisted and compelling new series that had no right to be one of the ten best of the year. The deeply flawed war hero that is Flash Thompson is the perfect choice for this alien symbiote who exploits the worst aspects of its host’s psyche. The eye-grabbing new soldier-style look is cool enough to entice new readers (or Snake Eyes fans), and once they’re in, they’re given a story of a really messed up guy trying to serve his country while keeping his loved ones in the dark… or trying to find out if he even really loves his loved ones – particularly the abusive, alcoholic father he lost this year. This book was a pitch-perfect counterbalance to the wild and woolly fun of Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man during Spider Island, one of the most tightly scripted big event crossovers in recent memory… and Flash ended the year by going AWOL with the alien and stealing Captain America’s bike, blowing all the hero cred he’d built up. This book is great – and we haven’t even mentioned how creepy the new Jack O’Lantern is.
Be it the Future Foundation or the Fantastic Four, Jonathan Hickman has breathed some new life into Marvel’s First Family. He started the year by killing off the Human Torch and ended the year by bringing him back a couple of years older with the cosmic scourge of Annihilus brought low and literally put on a leash. In the meantime, the FF got a really sleek and snazzy new look with the black and white togs that hearken back to classic sci-fi stories, and they added Spider-Man to the mix, which really freshened up the team dynamic, as he can bounce back and forth between Johnny Storm-snark and Reed Richards-smarts. Hickman’s also not shying away from making the FF feel different from most other Marvel books by really diving into the deep end of science fiction – crazy alternate dimension machinations, multiple evil Reeds, his time-traveling dad and his mad scientist kids, not to mention weird new alien customs for the Inhumans and a reborn Kree Supreme Intelligence. The most fun goes to the gathering of FF enemies to try and figure out ways to beat the evil Reeds – getting Mad Thinker, Diablo, Wizard, Doom and more into one room for a symposium is just great reading. It’s heartening to see the FF back in vogue in time for their 50th anniversary.
4. AVENGERS ACADEMY
Christos Gage has managed to craft a very unique and interesting team book out of the remnants of Dark Reign, focusing on teenage superhumans who were abused by Norman Osborn’s regime and are now being handled with kid gloves by Hank Pym, Tigra and the staff of the AA to try and make sure they don’t fall into supervillainy. These kids actually feel like teenagers and they’re not written as precocious enough to essentially be adults – even when they try to be grown-ups, they come off as trying too hard. They’ve learned lessons about revenge, teamwork and even their potential future selves, and Gage even managed to work in the madness of Fear Itself in a way that really felt like putting these untested kids through a war. Through it all, their interpersonal relationships feel real, with all-too-true neuroses and foibles they struggle valiantly to overcome… and Gage ended the year by adding two new queer characters to the all-too-small Marvel pantheon in Julie Power and Striker. This is just a wonderful book with real emotional heft, and it’s not without its upbeat fun, either.
For years… hell, for a decade… hell, since Frank Miller, Matt Murdock’s life has been one hellish misery after another, climaxing with being possessed by a demon and turned evil enough to finally kill Bullseye. To paraphrase Mark Waid, they were good stories, but you needed a stiff drink after each issue. With respect to what’s gone before, Waid has come on board The Man Without Fear and managed to figure out a way to bring him out of the doldrums of despair and brighten his life again – thanks to a voluntary choice to deal with his horrible life in the healthiest way he can think of. Shrugging it off and remembering how to laugh. With artist Paolo Rivera’s clean, classic look, Daredevil doesn’t feel like gut-punching film noir anymore, but a book that’s actually fun to read. Murdock himself said it best in DD #7: “The old Matt? The tortured, guilt-ridden, self-destructive punching bag? I hate that guy. Let’s go.” We’re going right along with him.
2. UNCANNY X-FORCE
We did mention Rick Remender’s having a great year, right? This is another reason why. While this may play more to longtime X-fans than new readers, Remender’s series has explored moral boundaries of how a heroic wetworks team would ever function, but it’s also served two improbable purposes for X-Lore Warriors. For one, it’s turned the nearly incomprehensible Grant Morrison creation known as Fantomex into a huge cult favorite character, outshining his co-star Deadpool in the realm of wicked bon mots. Secondly, it’s brought to a fitting end the entire arc of Warren Worthington, the Avenging Angel, the original X-Man, and the Archangel of Death with The Dark Angel Saga – an 8-part epic that built an enemy so unstoppable out of decades of continuity that our heroes lost to him about a hundred times before finally finding a way to triumph… and in the typically bleak Remender style, that triumph felt like anything but. We’d be remiss not to mention the stunning fine-art of Jerome Opeña which really brought home the dark and moody feel of massive god-level disaster that made this scrappy team of stabby gun-toters feel completely outmatched at every turn . Plus… teenage Apocalypse raised to be a hero in what is essentially a virtual-reality Smallville? How can you not be intrigued by that?
1. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
No book was crafted more masterfully in 2011 than Dan Slott’s mile-a-minute saga of Peter Parker, which has become so good that even the most hardline haters of One More Day can’t resist coming back into the Spider-fold. Slott is an absolute master of crafting stories with a fun, energetic style that constantly surprise you with where they can go emotionally. He’s obviously a huge fan of all the characters he’s running with, and he even suggested having Spidey join the FF to Jonathan Hickman just so he could get to use the Thing whenever he wanted, to boot. With his huge cast of characters, he’s super excited to add more? That’s unheard of, but Slott just keeps pulling it off. Opening the year with an arc which found Parker losing his spider-sense and adding the death of Marla Jameson to his burdened conscience, Slott proved his range with J. Jonah Jameson’s quiet misery and Peter’s nightmares of never-ending guilt. Then,by the end, he came around to have a joyous breakthrough victory – and now he's got his spider-sense back, AND he knows kung-fu!
What solidified 2011 as the Year of Spider-Man, however, was Spider Island – the first great event book in recent memory. Kicking off before the turgid mess of Fear Itself even ended (and it’s worth noting that, thanks to Chris Yost, Fear Itself: Spider-Man was the best thing about that hammerfest) so those of us groaning about it had someplace to go to get some awesome sauce, Spider Island was large-scale but tightly-scripted, energetically rendered by the workaholic Humberto Ramos, and actually managed to have a satisfying ending! When’s the last time that happened in an event book? He even worked in a revelation from Mary Jane Watson that should be grabbing the eyes of those sour-pusses still kvetching about Mephisto. Amazing Spider-Man has just been non-stop entertainment from January to December – ending with a throwdown between the two best supervillain teams Marvel has – the Sinister Six and the Intelligentsia – that cheapened neither team and set the stage for Dr. Octopus absolutely ruling 2012. We can’t wait to see it.