By Jarred A. Luján — Thanos has a special place in my weird, comicbook nerd heart. When I was 13, a friend lent me an Infinity Gauntlet trade...and it blew me away. That comic was the first one I remember that showed superheroes losing—definitively. While that doesn’t exactly keep by the end of the book, watching so many iconic heroes fall to this ambitious, lovestruck purple alien was really a shock to me, and I was…Read More
By Zack Quaintance — The most difficult thing about a strong year for comics (like this one) is doing a year-end Best Of list. Now, to be sure, no one mandates websites do rankings. That would be a clear violation of civil liberties. There is, however, a part of the pop culture blogger brain that goes wild for it, whispering all year long...where does this one rank...and if you don’t satisfy that beast—well, bad things happen.
So, here we our with ours, freshly formulated for 2018 by our committee of one. Before we dive into part 2, which features in descending order selections #15 to #6 (Top Comics of 2018, #16 - #25 is up now, with the Top 5 due later today), let’s rehash our ground rules:
No trades or OGNs: Building out our OGN coverage is a priority for 2019. We’re just not there yet. So, while I absolutely loved work like Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Box Brown’s Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, and Ryan Lindsay and Eric Zawadzki’s Eternal, you won’t find them here. Ideally, next year’s we’ll have an entire post dedicated to OGNs.
No webcomics, manga, or newspaper strips: Again, our site is a bit deficient covering these (if you are into these things, we’d love to chat about you writing for us!). I should, of course, mention that in 2018 someone under the pen name Olivia James took over the long-running Nancy strip and did amazing things with it (Sluggo is lit), but, again, you won’t find it on our list.
Longevity matters: New this year, you will find what I consider a key stat—how many issues were published this year. Late debut series like Die, Electric Warriors, and Bitter Root have tons of promise. They just haven’t been around enough to be a definitive comic of 2018. Ditto for comics that ended in April or earlier.
There you have it: guiding principles of our Top Comics of 2018. Now, without further adieu, let’s keep this bad hombre going!
Writer: Ann Nocenti
Artist, Letterer: David Aja
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Issues in 2018: 2
The second issue of this series absolutely blew my mind. So much so it was enough to land this comic in our list, and at no. 15 too! I’m going to struggle to articulate why this is not only one of the best comics out today, but also the comic with the most potential to be an all-time great series. But here goes…
Writer Ann Nocenti and artist David Aja have clearly thought hard about the state of the world, dwelling on current trends, struggles, challenges, \and even a few victories to extrapolate a future the likes of which we’ve never seen. There are (as noted in yesterday’s list) many near-future disaster stories running through comics. Many of them do admirable jobs extending a fear or concern to logical places. Seeds encompasses much more with its predictions, in a way that feels impossibly novel yet so obvious you wonder why its ideas hadn’t previously occurred to you. If you start listing story elements—failing planet, media corruption, alien love story/menace—they sound a little rote, but the way these talented creators bring them together is nothing short of remarkable. Now, if only they could get a handle on the delays...
14. Doomsday Clock
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Colorist: Brad Anderson
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Publisher: DC Comics
Issues in 2018: 6
Speaking of delays (hey! would you look at that transition), next we have Doomsday Clock. Writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank were as good as their word this year, mostly sticking to the every-other-month schedule they promised following Doomsday Clock #3. We got six new issues in 2018, and the last three were straight up killer comics. This series has, to be blunt, massive ambitions.
Indeed, the intentions of this comic are starting to crystalize, and if Johns and Frank can pull this off, they could end up with a story that speaks to the current rise of authoritarian governments across the globe, the reactions of the media and the populous, and what it means to be a public hero today, to take a strong position. It’s heady stuff, with potential to shape DC’s line and maybe even the stories the aging company does for the next decade.
13. Ice Cream Man
Writer: W. Maxwell Prince
Artist: Martin Morazzo
Colorist: Chris O’Halloran
Letterer: Good Old Neon
Publisher: Image Comics
Issues in 2018: 8
As I’ve noted throughout, ranking the many many many excellent comics this year has been no easy feat. There were a ton of tough choices, but as my friend Rob from Panel Patter noted, at a certain point you have to choose, otherwise there’s no purpose to the endeavor. For me, placing Ice Cream Man was the most difficult decision. An anthology horror comic linked only by the titular (and hella creepy) ice cream man, this book has been a tour de force.
The reason it lands at #13 is twofold. No. 1, 13 is creepy and it seemed fitting, because aside from one other selection (we’ll get into that later), this is the highest-ranking horror comic on our list. No. 2, I’m trying to rank series for holistic reading experience. Ice Cream Man being made of vignettes makes that trickier. This book is easily one of the best comics of 2018, and we’ll heap more praise on it in future posts, specifically the Best Single Issues of 2018, coming later this week. For now, I’ll just note everyone should read this comic, just pick up random issues (they’re all self-contained) and go. The rate of success is high enough I’m confident you’ll all find flavors (sorry) you like.
12. The Wild Storm
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt
Colorist: Steve Buccellato
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: DC Comics
Issues in 2018: 8
It’s pretty amazing this far into a celebrated career, Warren Elllis is doing his best work, writing a slow-burning epic that strips down characters he’s handled for years before building them back into something searingly-relevant for 2018. This new The Wild Storm has a few familiar names, while remaining entirely accessible for first-time readers of this universe. And what Ellis is doing here is exploring the vast influence wielded by long-standing (and hard to comprehend) power structures.
He’s joined by Jon Davis-Hunt, one of (if not the) most underrated artists in comics. Davis-Hunt comes fresh from career work of his own on Gail Simone’s Clean Room, and as good as he was there, he’s hitting a new level, crafting graphic sequential storytelling both kinetic and real, capable of disrupting any visual laws of reality yet photorealistic and engrossing. As intellectual and nuanced a comic as we’ve seen, this is a must-read story.
11. The Mighty Thor / Thor
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Russell Dauterman, Mike del Mundo, Christian Ward, Jen Bartel, Various
Colorists: Matthew Wilson, Marco D’Alfonso
Letterer: VC’s Joe Sabino
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Issues in 2018: 4 / 12
Jason Aaron’s ongoing run on Thor is the best long-form story happening in superhero comics, and it’s really not even close. Aaron and Esad Ribic’s Thor: God of Thunder #1, which essentially marked the start of this current run, hit stands in November 2012, a vastly different time in the world and industry. Marvel has no other run close, with Hickman and Bendis gone from the company and Dan Slott off Amazing Spider-Man. Invincible has also ended, and DC’s main challengers—Batman and Deathstroke, for my money—date back to summer 2016, which is hardly a challenge at all.
Thor, however, keeps going strong, landing this year’s 16 issues (and a Jane Foster one-shot) at #11 overall on our list. Our committee of one suspects it will be higher next year, what with the War of the Realms coming. The Jane Foster finale was certainly a high point his year, but it felt like more of a pause than a proper finish, setting the table for what is sure to be some damn fine comics to come. In summation, 2018 was another great year for Aaron’s Thor run, but we all but guarantee 2019 will be even better, possibly the high water mark for this story.
10. X-Men Red
Writer: Tom Taylor
Artists: Mahmud Asrar, Carmen Carnero, Roge Antonio
Colorists: Ive Svorcina, Rain Beredo
Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Issues in 2018: 11
What a surprise this comic was. I’d tapped out on X-Men: Blue and X-Men: Gold, deciding to wait for whatever next big X-thing. Then comes an announcement of a third color, part of the Marvel Legacy line, which, let’s face it, was dead on arrival. But here’s the thing: Tom Taylor and Mahmud Asrar’s X-Men: Red was good. Like, really really really good. Taylor’s scripting understood the franchise better than any writer I’ve read in I don’t know how long, casting the team as equal parts superhero high-flyers and common defenders of the oppressed, all with a geopolitical angle.
It made Jean Gray the face of Xavier’s continuing dream, a brilliant move given her legacy (ahem) and similar skill set, and it faced the X-Men against threats essentially derived from the messages of hate coursing through the modern media landscape, be it reportage or social posting. It was a brilliant stretch of 11 issues that ended way too soon, and, in my opinion, it was the first real hint how the X-Men can be made relevant for 2018, 2019, etc., taking them out of their long-standing continuity mire. It will be missed, and I hope this new generation of X-writers draw from its example.
9. Vault Comics: Fearscape / Friendo / These Savage Shores
Writers: Ryan O’Sullivan / Alex Paknadel / Ram V.
Artists: Andrea Mutti / Martin Simmonds / Sumit Kumar
Colorists: Vladimir Popov / Dee Cunnife / Vittorio Astone
Letterers: Andworld Design / Taylor Esposito / Aditya Bidikar
Publisher: Vault Comics
Issues in 2018: 3 / 3 / 2
Okay, so this one is cheating, but of the three new Vault Comics launched by British writers with clear literary roots in the fall, I couldn’t pick any one to elevate above the others. They’re all incredible, and so I built myself a loophole (it’s my website, afterall), and included all three on the list. I heard Vault editor Adrian Wassel on a podcast earlier this year, saying comics could swing to a literary place that incorporates both recent cinematic storytelling trends and their unique ability to synthesize words and pictures. All three of these titles reflect that viewpoint.
You can read more thoughts about each on our Reviews Page, but let me run through them quickly. Fearscape is a look at pretense, literary culture, and how the nature of creative writing often sees authors bouncing violently between bouts of outsized ego and crippling insecurity. The voice is pretentious and incredible. Friendo is a meditation on the decline of late-model capitalist countries, specifically the United States, casting apathy, ceiling-less corporate greed, and the marginalization of government checks as truly terrifying villains. These Savage Shores is a gorgeous and deep commentary on imperialism, using misdirection to to create an engaging and tone-heavy narrative. Basically, all three of these are well worth your time, and I highly recommend them all.
8. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles
Writer: Mark Russell
Artist: Mike Feehan
Inker: Sean Parsons
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Publisher: DC Comics
Issues in 2018: 6
Speaking of literary comics, Mark Russell and Mike Feehan’s Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (improbably) falls in that bin as well. Last year we highlighted Russell’s work on Flintstones. Another year and another smart take on a Hanna-Barbera property, and here we are again. In Russell’s re-imagining of this mythos, Snagglepuss is a basically closeted playwright during McCarthy-ism, trying to stay true to his values without running afoul of the federal government and staid societal interests.
Russell uses this premise to tell a sophisticated story that dances with ideas about life, art, politics, group think, and conservatism. The emotional core to this thing is the Huckleberry Hound character, whose tragic story beats brought tears to my eyes a couple of times. If reading a comic about Snagglepuss doesn’t sound appealing, don’t worry—you’re not alone in that thinking. But Russell also uses the legacy of the character to do work toward the satirical points he’s making, to help drive them home.
7. Wasted Space
Writer: Michael Moreci
Artist: Hayden Sherman
Colorist: Jason Wordie
Letterer: Jim Campbell
Publisher: Vault Comics
Issues in 2018: 6 (counting the holiday special)
Phew, now we’re getting into the comics that I can’t imagine my 2018 without, the first being Michael Moreci and Hayden Sherman’s Wasted Space. I have heaped my fair share of praise on this book over the past 12 months, and I’m not alone. In fact, Nerdist has called it “easily the best new series to hit comic shops so far this year.” For my money, it’s without question the best wholly new property of 2018, and I’m going to quote myself to elaborate on why...
Wasted Space to me feels like Star Wars by way of 2018, determined to honor the hi-jinx & high adventure of space opera while fearlessly exploring the central conflict of our times: where should one’s desire for comfort end and their obligation to combat oppression begin? I’ve compared Moreci’s absurdist, idea-heavy writing to the late David Foster Wallace and I stand by that, noting that Sherman’s chaotic high-energy art style brings the world to life in a special way. This is maybe the highest compliment I can give: in a day and age where i buy fewer paper comics than ever before, I still have a pull list and on it near the top is Wasted Space.
6. Thanos Wins
Writer: Donny Cates
Artist: Geoff Shaw
Colorist: Antonio Fabela
Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Issues in 2018: 6
Toward the end of 2017, Brian Michael Bendis left Marvel, dealing the publisher as significant of a writing void as I’ve seen in the past two decades, dating back to before Bendis established himself as the company’s prime writing voice. The thing about voids like that is they force publishers to take bigger risks and bring in younger, newer talent. For Marvel in 2018, that meant Donny Cates (among others).
One of Cates’ first charges at Marvel was to takeover Thanos in the wake of another essentially departing writer, Jeff Lemire, who seemed from the outside to be off to focus on the superhero universe he owned and created, Black Hammer. What Cates and past collaborator Geoff Shaw did with the final six issues of this run was absolutely remarkable, telling what is not only the best Thanos story of all-time, but the best end of the Marvel Universe tail this side of Jonathan Hickman. It’s called Thanos Wins, and it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Thanos Wins is as bold a statement as a young writer doing his first work at Marvel could have made. Aided by the out-of-this-world Geoff Shaw artwork and Antonio Fabela colors, Cates seemed to put all of comics on notice here, not being content to just decimate the very futures of these decades-old beloved characters, but insisting on doing so with wild grin viscerally affixed to his face. You might wonder, how do I know he was laughing and smiling as he wrote all of this. I think the better question, is how could anyone who’s read Thanos Wins doubt it?
Read our analysis of Thanos Wins here!
Check back later today for our Best Comics of 2018, #1 - #5! Check out Best Comics of 2018, #16 - #25! And check back later in the week for more year-end lists, including our Best Single Issues and our Top Creators of 2018!
Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.
By Zack Quaintance — Maybe I’m suffering from recency bias, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a summer in my life (I’m 22 give or take...SEVERAL years) as good for comics as this. Seriously. There are top-notch stories being told at both major superhero publishers—with characters ranging from Mister Miracle to Captain America—while the creator-owned market hits unprecedented peaks for variety and quality.
Being in the midst of this wave is a blessing and challenge for writing lists like this. Obviously, I don’t lack titles, but it’s tough to narrow things down. I recently faced the same dilemma sorting the Best New #1 Comics of July. My answer is do it and spend the next month regretting choices. Act recklessly and then deal...that’s a strategy I’ve long employed.
Joking aside, I put a lot of thought into this month’s list, agonizing until I landed on the titles below. Sooooo—let’s do this!
Let’s start with a mess: Batman #50 and the spoiler fiasco. I didn’t get spoiled (thankfully), but I’m sympathetic to all who did. Regardless, this was a fine issue with a welcome twist, especially if as Tom King says, this is the run’s halfway point.
Have you all read IDW’s Black Crown imprint? You should. July saw the end of two early titles: Assassanistas and Punks Not Dead. Put simply, what a glorious wave of odd books, heavy on craft, humor, subversion. Can’t wait to see what Black Crown does next.
The darling of this year’s Eisners, Monstress, wrapped its third arc with a thundering crescendo and the most action in any single issue since the book’s debut. Perhaps most importantly, Monstress #18 also laid great track for future stories. Very well done.
Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen concluded their sci-book Descender, a beautiful watercolor epic about childhood friendship. This issue was great (like the entire series), but it was less a finale than a continuation, setting up a sequel called Ascender that launches this fall.
In Immortal Hulk #2 and #3, Al Ewing and Joe Bennett continued to strike a horrifying tone, telling a story closer to prestige horror than standard superheroics, leading to half of comics Twitter saying I don’t usually like the Hulk but I like THIS.
There’s a reason Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece is taught in schools: it’s a well-done historical mystery steeped in questions about race. Its sequel wrapped this month with Incognegro Renaissance #5, a worthy successor.
Sideways #6 gives its teen hero a defining tragedy, and ho man did it sting. Speaking of The New Age of DC Heroes, The Unexpected #2 and Terrifics #5 were both great too.
Apparently Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt’s phenomenal new take on old characters, The Wild Storm, is selling well (at least online), but not enough fans are talking about it. I wish that would change. It’s so good.
Finally, Flash #50 was an emotionally-satisfying conclusion to a long-simmering plot thread, one that also featured that page with the return of that character at the end.
Top 5 Comics of July 2018
5. Venom #4 by Donny Cates & Ryan Stegman
I don’t want to go into the plot, except to note there’s an expert connection to Jason Aaron’s all-time great run on Thor, and that superhero comic fans love that type of thing. There’s also just a feeling of excitement around everything Cates is writing; he’s like an athlete having his first MVP season, entrenching himself as a lead voice at Marvel, even extending his exclusive with the publisher.
Which is all great, as is Venom #4. It’s still relatively early in this run, but Cates and Stegman have talked about doing a prolonged and character-defining stretch on this book. Also, like Immortal Hulk, this is another book that seems to have many fans reading a character they otherwise wouldn’t. No easy feat.
4. Wasted Space #3 by Michael Moreci & Hayden Sherman
Wasted Space, the frenetic space opera about addiction and cultism and 100 other things, just keeps getting better. People who write about comics often use that line, but in this case it’s true. Wasted Space is a complex comic with so many big ideas that the experience of reading it improves as more of its scope becomes visible. That’s been my experience, anyway.
I loved Wasted Space #3 (read my review of Wasted Space #3). The ideas and plotting that made the series so engrossing is still here, but this issue also (organically) ups the humor, especially when the big all-powerful gigantic enemy guy tells some rando he’d feel better about himself if he approached work with pride—hilarious. I don’t know if I can be clearer: you should all be reading this book.
3. Gideon Falls #5 by Jeff Lemire & Andrea Sorrentino
Holy wow, the art in this comic is insane. I know that’s vague and non-descriptive, but if you’ve read it, you’re absolutely nodding along. The truth is it’s hard to to describe these visuals without using dude, did you see that language. The art is imaginative to the point one wonders exactly when Andrea Sorrentino disregarded conventions and straight up started doing whatever he wanted.
There are bold choices, to be sure, every one of which pays off, including red circles around details for emphasis, and arrows telling readers where to look. It could come off as proscriptive, but given how engrossing this story is, it instead feels helpful. I’ve liked this comic from the start (see my long-ago review of Gideon Falls #1), but Gideon Falls #5 somehow reaches new levels of creativity, storytelling, and absolutely bananas visual stimulation on every page. Absolutely bananas.
2. Wonder Woman #51 by Steve Orlando & Laura Braga
With Wonder Woman #51, Steve Orlando and Laura Braga tell a stand-alone story with a deep and nuanced understanding of this character, one that shows exactly why she’s been relevant all these years. It’s the type of small-scale story that plays to a hero’s essence, the type done ad nauseum with Batman and Superman but not nearly as much with Wonder Woman. This comic, however, helps to fix that.
It’s just so perfect. Aside from the adept characterization, it features an engaging and emotional narrative that speaks to Diana’s core values. It sounds cliche, but I teared up here at the drama and and smiled at the jokes. This is, to me, an issue we’ll be hearing new creators talk about on podcasts 10 years from now, citing it as an influence for the way they write/think about the character.
Read our review of Wonder Woman #51.
1. Saga #54 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Nothing will ever be the same. If you’ve read the issue, check out Why Saga #54 Hurts So Bad. If you haven’t, please read the issue and then click that link. There’s just no good way to discuss this without spoilers. Simply put, though, we’ll just note that this is the most consequential issue yet in the best series in comics.
That does it for our July list. Please check back to the site tomorrow for our new feature, Five Questions With Creators, which is being kicked off with writer Zack Kaplan, of Eclipse, Port of Earth, and Lost City Explorers!
By Zack Quaintance — Donny Cates only has one setting: #@$&ING INTENSE. No off switch, no take-it-easy button, no chill. He might not even have brakes in his car. This is all a dramatic way of saying Cates brings the same hard-hitting, grandiose storytelling to all of his books, be it creator-owned titles Babyteeth, God Country, and Redneck, or Marvel’s Venom.
I suspected as much after Cates got what were essentially gap-filling arcs on Doctor Strange and Thanos, yet still added Bats the Ghost Dog and Frank Castle the Cosmic Ghost Rider to their respective mythoses (mythosi?). Now, Death of the Inhumans #1, first of a five-part series that is exactly what its title implies, has verified my Cates ALWAYS Goes Hard theory.
If ever there was a time to ease up, this was it for Cates, who is juggling successful creator-owned comics (the aforementioned Babyteeth and Redneck), while also laying groundwork for a character-defining run on Venom, writing a Cosmic Ghost Rider mini-series, and returning soon to Thanos with Thanos Legacy #1 in September.
But he didn’t lay off. In fact, Death of Inhumans is as intense as any of Cates’ work, if not more so, powered in this issue by expert characterization of Black Bolt and a fearsome new villain, Vox. It also has Cates signature entertaining-yet-authoritative voice, which guides you through the carnage on the page, showing you what hurts most with poetic turns of phrase before cracking wise in the very next panel, all while sounding like a genial Texan uncle.
What has most defined Cates work so far, however, is that you can just tell this guy is having all kinds of nutso fun writing superhero comics. I’d wager half his ideas start in bars (he lives in Austin, as hard-drinking of a town as any) and the other half start with him wondering if he can get away with something.
Credit is also owed to Marvel for letting Cates get away with ideas while also pairing him with top-notch artists, including the likes of Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Cates’ God Country/The Paybacks collaborator, Geoff Shaw. They’ve done it again here, putting him with the team of Ariel Olivetti and Jordie Bellaire. While the later is a top tier colorist, Olivetti is new to me, but the work in this book is impressive, especially the character design for the new, horrifying villain. Basically, I for one am primed and ready for the coming annihilation.
Overall: Cates trademark clever-yet-authoritative voice combines with a fearsome new villain and excellent characterization of Black Bolt to turn what could have been a chance for him to take it easy into one of his most intense titles yet. Prepare for the coming devastation. 8.5/10
There is no easy way to review Avengers: Infinity War, because there has never been a movie quite like Avengers: Infinity War. Here we have a film that plays out narrative threads from 18 movies and 10 cinema franchises. It’s not a sequel, hell, it’s not even a season finale. It’s the culmination of a decade of disparate storytelling. It’s something new that we don’t have a word for yet. And how do you review a work of art without another comparable work of art to measure it against? That’s the conundrum.
But review we must, because we are results-driven as a culture and simply looking at Infinity War’s record-breaking domestic box office in its first weekend is unsatisfying. Money is one thing, vital for sustaining blockbusters of this magnitude, but it doesn’t answer a key question: is this movie actually good?
It’s certainly groundbreaking and unprecedented. There’s simply no denying that. You have to look to comic books to find something of comparable scale, and even then it’s a shoddy comparison because no comic book event has ever sprung from a continuity as clean and straightforward as this one.
This first panel comes from What to Get From the Man Who Takes Everything by Chris Hastings, Flaviano, & Federico Blee. This is the story of a regular guy who Thanos comes back to harass annually on his birthday. It's a funny panel, and I also like the imagery of Thanos in an office, where you know he would without question be that one co-worker who drums on his desk.
It’s also a risky film (HERE COME SPOILERS!). The bad guy wins. He has to give up a cherished loved one—his only cherished loved one—but when the film ends he has everything he said he wanted. He heaves a sigh of contentment, and there’s nothing around to suggest it’s not a sincere one. Oh yeah, and half the heroes fade away and die. Now, if we’re being real, we know none that died in the fade out are going to stay dead. We have the advantages of knowing the source material and that the film was originally part one of two (more on that in a sec).
But the sheer volume of viewers who watch these movies certainly means there are thousands of fans who don’t know any of that, who simply know that many of their favorite characters faded away to ash. That’s risky, that’s bold, that’s downright innovative for a blockbuster film. So, with all that in mind, let’s get to my verdict…
Overall: Avengers: Infinity War is a new type of film I’m calling the uber blockbuster, the culmination of an expertly-played long game that has done so much right it’s easy to forgive anything done wrong. It’s a risky, bold, unprecedented, and groundbreaking film. For those of us along for the ride (and box office records for many of these films would suggest we are legion) it is indeed a very good film, one destined to influence both studio choices and fledgling filmmakers alike. 9.5/10
For more thoughts on the movie, you can hear me on the WMQ&A Podcast here!
Thanos Keeps Winning
This is, of course, a comics site first and foremost, so let’s cleanse our pallets after all that film talk with some good ol’ fashioned comics. Folks, I now present to you my favorite panels from last week’s Thanos Annual #1. I choose one from each of the six stories inside.
This panel is from My Little Thanks by Katie Cook and Heather Brickle, which is adorable but also one of the more interesting takes on what makes a villain tick. In this story, Thanos is put off by a race of little cuties who ascertain he enjoys maiming and death, so they pull out every stop to supplicate themselves and deliver that to him. The effect is...off putting.
Panel numero tres here today is from That Time Thanos Helped an Old Lady Across the Street by Ryan North, Will Robson, & Rachelle Rosenberg. This story is a meditation on human potential, specifically on the way so much has to transpire for it to be fully released. It's a lesson Thanos teaches in a saccharine way.
Kieron Gillen, Andre Arujo, & Chris O'Halloran's story Exhibition is basically a series of poems relating to the high concepts of various planets, every one of which ends prematurely when Thanos obliterates said plant. It's this ending panel of every planet exploding at once, however, that really delivers the crux of the story.
The Comfort of the Good by Al Ewing and Frazer Irving is the story I found the most disturbing from this bunch of uniformly disturbing stories. It has to do with religion and morality, and whether people only act decent to each other to reap an eventual reward. There were so many panels to choose from here, some of which showed characters beginning to weep as they realized the blissful afterlife they'd been promised would never come to pass. This silent panel of Thanos cracking a knowing grin, however, is easily the most sinister.
And this last panel reunites the team from Thanos Wins, the best Marvel villain story in ages. It's Titan's Greatest Dad by Donny Cates, Geoff Shaw, & Antonio Fabela. This panel is from the back half of that story's two bookends, and I choose it because I'm looking forward to Cates forthcoming Cosmic Ghost Rider mini series and I think you should be too.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.
I rarely write about comic book movies, for a few reasons: 1. I think they're pretty self-explanatory and most conversations amount to either wouldn't THIS be cool?, or screw you, let's fight!; 2. I'm an old-before-my-years purist who prefers comics; and 3. I'm not as passionate about these movies as most other people tend to be, so I usually just sit back and let strong feelings have the room.
But Infinity War is HUGE. It's part one of what feels like a major shift for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (part two being Avengers 4), and so I'm using it as an excuse for a rare post about the MCU, wherein I organize this mosaic of stories into tiers. Unless otherwise noted, these tiers have less to do with quality than with content. Also, I generally enjoy all comic adaptations, which feel to me like nice bonus supplements for my favorite print stories.
Enough preambling, let's do this!
Next Generation Tier
I know I said the tiers weren't about quality, but this first one is. Sorry. These are my three favorite Marvel movies, and I've grouped them in a tier because they feel like the future of the MCU, a future in which a talented director (or directors) is given a movie and trusted to execute a vision.
This is especially true of Taika Waititi's Thor Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. It's almost like Kevin Feige saw and loved What We Do in the Shadows and Creed, respectively, and invited the filmmakers to come do that in his universe. And they did. Civil War gets a nod because directors Joe and Anthony Russo juggle so many characters without losing control, much like they did as directors on Dan Harmon's all-time great TV sitcom, Community.
It's weird to think, but these movies all took risks that evolved the MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy didn't have mega-popular characters (or actors back then, not counting voices). In fact, there were comic fans who were only vaguely familiar with the team. But Marvel executed well and fans came. Winter Solider incorporated darker complex themes, even dismantling SHIELD. Again, fans came. But it was Spider-Man: Homecoming that was probably the most risky and consequential, proving properties adapted elsewhere could be re-done for the MCU. It ignored the origin, added modern touches, threw in an RDJ cameo, and glazed over that nasty business about Uncle Ben with jokes. And fans loved it. (I'm mixed, myself).
I've never been one for drug culture, although I used to tip a few brews when I was younger (another story), but I couldn't help but think how impressive/funny they'd have been if I had done some chemical altering before watching these movies...Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 because of the colors, Ant-Man because haha look how small he is, and Doctor Strange because obviously.
I should note Iron Man is my favorite of these. I remember walking out of the theater thinking, WHAT was that? It just felt so real. But I think Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Avengers are all solid at getting the job done in terms of introducing heroes and building a shared world.
Listen, I know every one of these movies means a lot to someone, that's just how fandom works, and I'm not looking to criticize or attack. What I am saying with this tier is that if you were re-watching all of Marvel's movies, these are the four you could skip and probably still understand what's happening in the rest.
I should note, though, that if you do skip these, you should still watch the party scene in Age of Ultron, and also Google "Who are Vision and Scarlet Witch?"
That's it for me. Enjoy Infinity War everyone. Depending on what I think about the movie, I may review it for you all here next week.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at@zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.
Let’s talk about one of Marvel’s best comics in years—Thanos Wins by Donny Cates—and how it was an unlikely success.
The solicit for the first issue, #13, teased a story about what happens when Thanos wins, written by Donny Cates and drawn by Geoff Shaw, a duo that was rising, to be sure, but by no means household names with the Big 2 superhero crowd.
Essentially, Marvel had a somewhat untested creative team (strong indie work aside) taking over a book about a villain that was 12 issues into a run, teasing a plot about a future where everyone’s favorite heroes had been murdered, brutally.
Then the incredible happened.
The first issue sold out. The second issue sold out. Both issues went for second printings. A spinoff series was announced. Online buzz started. Copies started going for more than quadruple the cover price on eBay. Retailers said years from now the trade would be an evergreen seller, with casual fans coming off the street to find it.
Simply put, Thanos won.
And thank the divine comic book forces it did. Marvel needed the emergence of a writer like Cates. It had, after all, lost Brian Michael Bendis—its most influential voice of the past two decades—to rival DC. It needed a bold new voice to push its marquee superhero properties in bold new directions. Cates delivered and as a reward is now getting a summer event (Death of the Inhumans) and a forthcoming run on Venom. Basically, Thanos could mark the rise of Cates at Marvel, the start of a new era.
With this significance in mind, let’s look at some of the elements that propelled Cates, Shaw, colorist Antonio Fabela, and Marvel to such a massive W here.
The first thing that tickled my brain (ew) about Thanos was the way Cates writes with such a confident voice. Cates work has more narration than most, but his language is so compelling, one hardly notices.
His sentences are clear and accessible, yet often long, winding, and poetic, leading readers on quick journeys that tend to end with full-on outlandishness. Check out these examples:
“After all, when one is murdering every sentient being in the cosmos by hand...a lapse in perfect record-keeping can be forgiven.”
“The last titans stood over the body of a shattered angel in a church built for their greatest love.”
“And of course, this is how it ends. The last of the titans fighting for the hand of death at the dusk of time.”
“Each Thanos taking a combined eternity of pain and sorrow out on themselves. Dealing not in words or feelings, but in their shared language of blood.”
There’s real voice to Cates writing, and while the two couldn’t be more different, the untethered confidence in that voice actually reminds me of a young Brian Michael Bendis on Powers or Ultimate Spider-Man, like a writer talking directly to you, telling a story he just has to get out because it’s that good.
Each opening line in Thanos is well done, but look at #16’s:
“When he was a younger man, and not yet a cosmic-fueled engine of time-traveling murder, Frank Castle’s wife and children were shot to death before his eyes.”
I Tweeted about liking this line, and Donny Cates responded with, “Haha. Yeah I’m pretty happy with that nonsense.” That gets at another thing working well in Thanos: despite the dark story and violent happenings, you can tell Cates is living a dream and having a blast.
I mean, try to read this panel and not laugh with him. ‘Nuff said!
Death’s Mercurial Facial Expressions
Cates wasn’t the only one having fun, though. Shaw (whose artwork with Fabela really owned the grandiosity of Cates’ script) did an incredible amount of work with a few mercurial facial expressions once Thanos lady love, Death, finally showed up. Observe:
Now seems as good a time as any to point out that part of the reason this plot succeeds is because it focuses on the most compelling and relatable thing about Thanos—his core motivation is that he’s a passionate man who is deeply in love. But more about the story in the next section...
The Story Structure
Really, Thanos Wins sticks to a pretty classic Hero’s Journey, which gives it a stable framework within which to build all of that nonsense.
Take, for example, the first truly great panel, which comes early in the story's first part:
This is just expert comic storytelling, with a caption giving us a casual contrast to the violent domination Thanos has just wrought. But this is also still the exposition phase of our story, the time before the call to adventure where we’re in Thanos’ status quo, and what Cates’ establishes here is that normal life is one in which Thanos just *shrug* obliterates the Chitauri, a race so fearsome it was the villain in the first Avengers movie.
The rest of the book reads like a game of Cates one-upping himself from there.
Marvel’s Commitment and Support
Thanos Wins is the most significant run at Marvel since Tom King’s 2015 Vision, and I’m drawing that connection to note one way that Marvel did not let history repeat. After Vision, DC swooped in and snapped King up. Marvel must have figured out what it had in Cates, because they signed him months before Thanos' first issue dropped.
And good on them.
Support like that is key to a story as big and seemingly limitless as Thanos Wins. In an endnote for the run's finale, Cates notes he was shocked that Marvel let him do the things in this book. He doesn’t mention this, but Marvel also supported Cates over Jim Starlin, the character’s creator.
See, Starlin was at work on a three-part graphic novel series that he said had a plot close to what Cates did here. No one has gone into detail, so it’s tough to know how much it truly overlapped, but what is known is that Starlin felt Marvel choose Cates’ work over his own, and he quit the publisher because of it.
We don’t know enough to say what Cates’ role (if any) was, and, really, I’m not sure it matters in the context of this conversation. As Oliver Sava noted in an AV Club piece early during Thanos Wins, “it’s all part of a bigger conversation about creator rights as superheroes continue their pop culture dominance.”
I think that’s true, and thus we'll save further examination until we can give the topic the space it deserves.
I’ll bring this home by noting Cates' work here is enough for me to buy his future Marvel books without hesitation. I’m also reading his creator-owned series Babyteeth and Redneck, and I'd place him in rarefied air with the aforementioned King and Jeff Lemire, whose work I also buy unconditionally.
What I find maybe the most interesting about Cates is he’s a pretty straight-forward storyteller, rarely toying with form or meta dialogue. He’s kind of a classic writer, in that his stories are driven hardest by character choices, with all plot growing from that. He seems to have an obsession with what drives people to violence that he’s dissecting in his work, and he’s not afraid to use an everyman voice in narration, or go the other way and sound like a poem. Call him the Cormac McCarthy of comics. Too much? Whatever.
Anyway, I’m glad he landed at Marvel and I hope he stays. Marvel’s risk-friendly editorial team seems better suited for Cates’ sensibilities. I should, however, note he has so far shown himself expert at contained mini series with big endings, and is yet to drive a book long-term like Jason Aaron on Thor, or Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man. If Cates' Twitter is to be believe (and it's not, he literally said he wasn’t doing Venom a day before it was announced he was doing Venom), plans are for Venom to run for many, many issues. I don’t care much for Venom as a character, but with Cates writing, I’m downright excited to check that book out.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.