A slam bam year: In 2006, comic books delivered some great tales and artwork

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Comic books and graphic novels experienced a creative renaissance last year. Mainstream comics and those published by smaller or independent presses made the weekly ritual of going to the comic specialty shop something to look forward to.

The revived "Spirit" franchise, by Darwin Cooke, J. Bone and Dave Stewart from DC Comics, fleshes out the sidekick character, Ebony.
Click photo for larger image.

While the spandex-and-fisticuffs brand of superhero narrative still dominates, there was a concerted push by industry titans Marvel and DC for better stories and art.

The independent publishers responded in kind by producing even more interesting and idiosyncratic fare for its far smaller share of the comic buying market.

Part of the impetus toward a better product may be that comic book characters have become a hot property to the creativity-challenged film industry. Hollywood studios are constantly looking for the next "Spider-man/X-Men" movie franchise.

Sometimes, the studios will settle for a more intimate comic-book-related project, like "American Splendor" or "Ghost World," two successful indie comics franchises that were critically acclaimed titles and modest box-office hits.

The more compelling the characters, the more likely audiences will be interested in seeing their adventures on the big screen, according to Hollywood dogma.

This year "Ghost Rider," Frank Miller's "300," "Spider-man 3" and "The Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" will be closely watched to see if Hollywood's logic is holding up. As audiences who sat through "Daredevil," "Elektra," "The Punisher" and "The Hulk" know, sometimes it doesn't.

Next year, "The Dark Knight," the sequel to "Batman Begins," will hit the screens. "Iron Man" and "Hulk 2" are scheduled for 2008 releases, as well.

No definitive word on whether "Luke Cage," written by Pittsburgh native Ben Ramsey and directed by John Singleton, has finally been green-lighted. The script is undergoing rewrites, according to fan sites.

Meanwhile, back in the old-fashioned world of comics on paper, 2006 was the best year for the medium in a long time.

A panel from the story "The Doll's House," part of "The Absolute Sandman" collection by Neil Gaiman, Volume One."
Click photo for larger image.Cover of "9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (Hill and Wang, $16.95)
Click photo for larger image.

Normally, this list would be top-heavy with independent comics and obscurities, but mainstream titles absolutely killed last year. Here is one critic's list of the best comics and graphic novels:

Best Comic Strip Anthology -- "Popeye Vol. 1: 'I Yam What I Yam' " by E.C. Segar (Fantagraphics, $29.95)

Ask your great-great-grandpappies about "Thimble Theater," a comic strip that introduced a squinty-eyed sailor with a penchant for spinach, Olive Oyl and ultra-violence to America's funny pages.

They'll tell you that reading about the Sea Hag and the Whiffle Hen was their introduction to surrealism. This first of a six-volume set covers 1928-30, Popeye's formative years as a barnacle-encrusted vulgarian falling in love with an anorexic narcissist.

Best Revival -- "The Spirit" by Darwyn Cooke (DC, $2.99)

Darwyn Cooke has been on a creative tear since his work on DC's "The New Frontier" showcased his narrative chops. He's an artist who can evoke nostalgia for a more innocent time without engaging in a retro-cynicism to score points with modern readers.

Will Eisner, the Spirit's legendary creator, died in 2005, but he would've approved of Cooke's handling of his 1940s-era masked crime fighter. Cooke even cleaned up Eisner's one concession to the bigotry of the '40s by making the Spirit's black sidekick, Ebony, a human being instead of a walking stereotype.

Runner-up: "Doctor Strange" (Marvel).

Best Revival of a Beloved Franchise -- "Mad" (E.C. Publications) $3.99.

Mad magazine never really went away, but it sure felt like it did. In the past decade, its snarky humor franchise was eroded by upstarts like The Onion and Comedy Central. Suddenly, the house that Alfred E. Newman built had to earn every laugh it used to take for granted.

With the exception of veterans Al Jaffee and Sergio Aragones, Mad is in the hands of a new generation of satirists who understand that the best way to a nation's funny bone is through its head. Some of the best political humor around appears in the pages of Mad.

Best Monthly Series (tie) -- "Daredevil" by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano (Marvel, $2.99) and "Captain America" by Ed Brubaker and Mike Perkins (Marvel, $2.99)

Brubaker is tied with Brian Michael Bendis as the most prolific and consistently great writer in comics today. Brubaker has transformed two of Marvel's signature titles into sophisticated explorations of the weight of identity, both secret and otherwise.

Runners-up: "Justice" (DC), "New Avengers" (Marvel).

Best Limited Series -- "Civil War" by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven (Marvel, $2.99)

I was skeptical about the premise for this series when I first read about it. Battles between superheroes aren't new. What's unprecedented is Marvel's decision to abide by the series' dark logic once it runs its course this year. Millar and McNiven have pitted Marvel's greatest icons against each other in a story line with deadly consequences.

After a team of novice heroes engage a homicidal villain in a battle in Stamford, Conn., which ends in the deaths of hundreds, the U.S. government orders every superhero to register their identities and submit to federal oversight. Iron Man leads the faction of heroes who willingly agree to become agents of the government. Captain America leads the rebels who refuse to cede their civil liberties.

All hell breaks loose. Spider-man unmasks himself on national television. A clone of Thor kills Goliath. Super villains are deputized to hunt the heroes who once put them behind bars. A gulag is set up for those who refuse registration. "Civil War" is an impressive exploration of liberty, loyalty, love and betrayal.

Best Alternative Comic -- "Schizo No. 4" by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics, $9.95)

Cartoonist Ivan Brunetti is a legend in the alternative comics field, and justifiably so. Like many of his indie contemporaries, Brunetti uses personal narratives to explore the social implications of self-loathing and existential dread. Unlike many of his peers, his mastery of the medium is evident on every page. Brunetti's debt to Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" is obvious, and there are times when he's as funny as his late mentor. "Schizo No. 4" collects strips Brunetti published between 1999 and 2005. It's hard not to root for a cartoonist who can competently tackle the lives of Soren Kierkegaard and Louise Brooks.

Best Comic for People Who Don't Read Comics -- "9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (Hill and Wang, $16.95)

More than half a decade after the events of Sept. 11, many of us are still processing what happened. The 9/11 Commission Report is applauded for its clear language and accessibility, but there's nothing like pictures to put the impossible events of that day into perspective. Jacobson and Colon's adaptation of the commission's report is visual reportage at its best. This book is the opposite of "dumbing down."

Runner-up: "Old Jewish Comedians" by Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics).

Best Idea for a Movie Yet to be Exploited by Hollywood -- "Ex Machina" by Brian Vaughan and Tony Harris (Wildstorm, $2.99)

Let's see ... an ex-superhero who becomes mayor of New York has to balance municipal budgets when not battling terrorists and psychopaths. This is the next big comic-to-movie franchise if Hollywood is smart enough to take it seriously. The Wachowski Brothers are already big fans, so maybe there's something in the works.

Runner-up: "Y the Last Man" (Vertigo).

Best Deluxe Presentation of Extraordinary Comics (tie) -- "The New Frontier: The Absolute Edition" by Darwyn Cooke (DC, $85) and "The Absolute Sandman" by Neil Gaiman (Vertigo, $100)

Sure, these formats are over-the-top and crazy expensive, but nothing's too good for aficionados of ultra-quality. "Absolute Sandman" is absolutely stunning. It collects the first 20 issues of the comic that made being a goth cool. Smell the leather!

"The New Frontier" collects the stunning mini-series about the "Golden Age" of heroes in a square-bound edition. This is the perfect gift.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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