Romance, Westerns, Superheros – DC Comics’ SOLO Collection

I can safely say that, as of late, DC Comics has been a bit disappointing.  Sure, they’ve got Sandman: Overture starting up in October and some Vertigo titles are still pretty great (I’m looking at you Unwritten!), but as a whole… The company seems to be, creatively, headed for a valley.

The New 52 is sputtering like an octogenarian gumming his way through breakfast, Before Watchmen was a horrendous misfire that didn’t stir up sales as much as controversy, and their new plan of having a Frank Miller-style battle between Batman and Superman is… distressing to say the least.

But, after nearly seven years, DC Comics has finally collected their bi-monthly series Solo into a very nice Deluxe hardcover.  How does this collection fare?  Read on, read on…

Solo
Written and Illustrated by Tim Sale, Richard Corben, Paul Pope, Howard Chaykin, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Michael Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Hampton, Damion Scott, Sergio Aragones, and Brendan McCarthy
DC Comics
June 5, 2013
568 Pages

Solo The Deluxe Edition Cover

Solo, when originally released, was published bi-monthly and done as a sort of artist’s showcase with some of the finest illustrators working in comics.  Just check out the list above and you’ll be hard pressed not to find something to enjoy in this volume.  And the best part?

It isn’t all DC continuity!  In fact, probably less than half of the stories had anything to do with DC Comics characters.  Batman shows up quite a bit, as to be expected, but that’s about it.

The biggest surprise was a brief story written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen and starring Boston Brand, the Deadman (proving once again that the Brits will invariably go ass over elbow for the Silver Age of comics), but Darwyn Cooke’s entire issue was top-to-bottom fantastic, Tim Sale’s issue is pretty great (even with the terribly uneven Jeph Loeb), and Sergio Aragones is (expectedly) fantastic.

But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, at least for me.

Despite how cool it was to see some Western comics, many of those kind of blend together for me and are, at the end of the day, forgettable.  The same goes for the adventure comics as well.

Similarly, some of the art just didn’t do it for me.  Artists like Brendan McCarthy, whose cover art I loved in the Vertigo Shade, The Changing Man series, was too weird.  Much of looked to me like Grant Morrison fucked R. Crumb in a psychedelic love-nest.  But it didn’t work for me.  I’m sure someone who actually knows anything about art would have found more to enjoy.

But if I were to whip out my biggest complaint, it would be that there’s a very small amount of female creators involved in the project.  None of the twelve issues focuses completely on any female artists.  Thankfully, Laura Allred shows up to assist in the writing and coloring of her husband Michael’s issue… But we couldn’t get Jill Thompson in there?  Amanda Conner, or Pia Guerra?  I know that much of comic books is (unfortunately) a man’s world, but certainly there could have been at least one female artist brought on board for this project.

Couldn’t there?

Despite this painful oversight, this still warrants a buy vote from me.  Michael Allred’s issue reads like a bizarre love-letter to the Silver Age of comics (and his story “Batman A-Go-Go!” is by far the best deconstruction of the character as it exists in a post-Miller world) and Darywn Cooke’s issue shows why he’s one of the best working in the business today.

Even with several of forgettable stories, this is a strong collection with a good mixture of serious, funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking comics that show that comic books are more than just muscular dudes in tights.

Sometimes, it’s also Batman doing the batusi.

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Teenage Wasteland – Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon

The Panopticon
Jenni Fagan
Hogarth Publishing
July 23, 2013
306 Pages

At first blush, this book is odd.  For me, even getting the title correct was difficult.  Panopticon.  I kept wanting to insert an extra syllable or two in there.  I don’t know why.  I’m familiar with the idea of a panopticon… mainly because of Grant Morrison’s supremely weird take on an alternate-reality Justice League in JLA: Earth-2 (lavishly illustrated by the interminably fantastic Frank Quitely), where the Earth-2 version of the Justice League, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, live in a lunar fortress known as The Panopticon.

The comic led me to dig a little bit into what a panopticon was… mainly because I feel that a certain amount of research is necessary for a fuller enjoyment of Morrison’s work.  And having read a big chunk of Grant Morrison’s work had adequately prepared me for the other difficult part of this novel: the use of Scottish dialect throughout.

Be warned going in, every page (and almost every character) speaks in a thick Scottish dialect.  This makes sense as the novel takes place in the UK, but some people may be turned easily by the numerous instances of cannaes, dinnaes, and umnays that appear throughout the novel.

While I’m on the subject, the dialect and language within the novel work very well to create the full character of Anais Hendricks.  Anais herself is a fantastic, well written character.  I’d compare her to Dora, from the novel Dora: A Headcasebut a lot more tolerable… and much sadder.

The preface for the book is a brief passage directly from Anais wherein she states that she is part of a great experiment that is always watching, “They watch me, I know it, and I can’t find anywhere, anymore, where they can’t see.”  And this paranoia over being watched is a major theme of the novel… and the paranoia seems more and more justified as the novel goes on.

A Panopticon

The Panopticon of the book’s title is a sort of halfway house where Anais is sent after an unknown incident with a police officer named PC Dawn Craig.  The police believe, however, that Anais attacked PC Craig and put her into a coma.

The shape of the center (an example is pictured to the left… thanks Wikipedia!) allows a guard, or security person to be centered in the building and look out on all the people they have locked up, without ever having been seen themselves.  Anais is never certain when someone is actually watching her, but she’s her paranoia leads her to believe that someone is watching with regularity.

On top of this, there are constant references to CCTV… and Britain is well-known to be under heavy CCTV monitoring, so once again… Anais’s paranoia is actually quite justified.

As the story goes on, we get more of Anais’s background and the chapters skip around quite a bit… in one, she’s still in the panopticon, in the next she’s flashing back to being arrested, in another, she flashes back to the moments immediately before she Even so, Fagan is a deft author and able to juggle these changes in time with ease.

At first, Anais is a bit of a cipher and it is difficult to feel much pity for her.  But as Fagan tells us more of her backstory, she becomes more empathetic and real.  One of Anais’s favorite things to do is to imagine her real family.  She constantly comes back around to the dream that her real mother lives in Paris and one day, they’ll be reunited in the City of Light.  Anais’s dreams of a quiet life, dashing in and out of art galleries and snacking at French Cafes is heart-rendingly sad…

My final word on The Panopticon is that this is the best book of the year, bar none.  The writing is superb, especially because Fagan keeps the reader guessing at what is real and what is paranoid delusion on Anais’s part.  In fact, there’s no definite resolution on most of it… which is the true purpose of a panopticon.  They could be watching you… or maybe not… But is it worth the risk if they are?

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Cruel and Unusual Punishment – Dean Koontz’s Deeply Odd

Why do I keep doing this to myself?  I’m pretty sure about six months ago, I vowed that I was done with Dean Koontz and the Odd Thomas series.  Yes, yes I did.  And yet, here I am dragging myself through another one.

Why?

I’m just not ready to let the character go.  The first three Odd Thomas books, Odd Thomas, Forever Odd, and Brother Odd are fun novels.  Odd himself is an optimistic, fun, yet tortured character who carries the world on his shoulders and (for three novels at least) remained interesting, and intriguing.  But some time between Brother Odd and Odd Hours the character took a dark turn.

Is this story more of the same?  Or did it take me back to the good old days of reading Dean Koontz novels?

Deeply Odd
Dean Koontz
Bantam Books
May 28, 2013
332 Pages

Well, I’m of two minds about this book.  It is significantly better than Odd Hours and Odd Apocalypse.  Leaps and bounds better, in fact.  I started off enjoying myself with this book… more than any Koontz book I’ve read for quite a few years (probably since Velocity in 2005).  In fact, it seemed that this was going to pass by at break-neck speed, much like Intensity, or Watchers.

But the air gets sucked out of the room pretty quickly. The same pessimism and out-of-place rants against some government policy are present here, as they were in Odd Apocalypse… but I was happy to not have any terribly placed pop-culture references in the first hundred pages, or so.

Still, the negativity really stands out to me.

I’m fully willing to believe that may the character always had a similar streak of pessimism to him, but… I honestly don’t remember the first three books having the same negativity that I’ve seen in the last three.

For instance, on page 44 of Deeply Odd, Odd thinks to himself, “Maybe you’re not a believer, but if you’re honest, you’ll have to agree that something is wrong with this place.  Senseless violence, corrupting envy,greed, blind hatred, and willful ignorance seem to be proof that Earth has gone haywire.”

Now… I’m not a terribly optimistic person.  I know this about myself and if you meet people who know me and as them, I’m fairly certain they’ll disagree.  I’ve always considered myself a realist which may also make me a pessimist at times, but… damn! For a character who goes around spouting out positive platitudes with regularity, Odd Thomas hides a bit of a Gloomy Gus in his monologues!

And I think that’s what bothers me.  The character appear to be meant to be an Everyman who shows how we can all stand up to evil in our lives (or have I read too much into the series already?), yet he seems to believe that there’s just too much to fight against!

If I may quote again from Deeply Odd, this time from page 13, “…I would sound like just another drug-addled paranoid, another piece of sad human wreckage of the kind that littered the landscape of an America that seemed to be rapidly fading out of history in a  world growing darker by the day.”

Wow!  I mean… WOW!

So this rather wide stripe of pessimism aside, though… how is the book overall?

The introduction of Edie Fischer, an octogenarian millionaire in need of a chauffeur, is a step in the right direction.  At first, she seems to be a call back to the surprisingly tough older folks that pop up in Koontz novels from time to time.  There’s a character from Watchers (whose name I cannot remember and I feel absolutely terrible about that) who is charming, brave, heroic, and all around great…

But Edie Fischer is not this type of character.  She’s the same hollow mouthpiece for Koontz’s anti-government rhetoric that Odd Thomas has become over the last three books.  In fact, I’ve officially given up on this book, the first Koontz book I’ve started and haven’t finished.

What did it?  One line from Edie that was neither necessary, nor appropriate.  During a conversation about her souped up car, she comments that most of her upgrades are considered illegal.  When Odd asks her what kind of laws they break she says, “Oh, all kinds of laws, sweetie.  Idiot safety laws, boneheaded environmental laws that actually contribute to pollution, the laws of physics, you name it.”

That was the straw.  Dean Koontz is entitled to his opinions.  Hell, he’s entitled to expressing his opinion.  Double-hell, if he wants to add it into his writing, perhaps he could read a Kurt Vonnegut novel and learn a little something about satire the next time he feels like a character has to voice the raging insanity that lives deep inside his soul.  But this is too much.

There are too many good books in the world for me to waste my time any more on this one.  Last time, I swore I was done with Dean Koontz.  I, apparently, lied.  But after this disasterpiece of a novel, I don’t see myself sitting back down with any more new Koontz books.

For now, I’ve got Jenni Fagan’s wonderful debut The Panopticon, A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (author of the darkly fantastic and critically uneven You Deserve Nothing), and the Dunk & Egg novellas from George RR Martin… not to mention at least five other advance readers and long-ago purchased books from Goodwill and various other sources…  I just don’t have the time, or patience, for Dean Koontz any more.

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And You Thought Your Job Sucked – Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide To New York City

So I’m not huge into the urban fantasy genre.  I’ve enjoyed some author’s takes on it, most especially Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  But as a general rule, I find it kind of boring.  Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series is one that I never picked up after reading the first one, same with authors like Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris (though at the Southern Vampire books really urban fantasy? Bah, close enough…).

That said, I’ve tried to remain open-minded to new additions to the genre, especially when the backbone of the novel is a focus on books!  BOOKS!  I love books, obviously. They stack up around me, more and more every week… and I’m not sick of them yet.  My wife might be, but… that’s a story for another post.

So… is The Shambling Guide to New York City the novel to drag me kicking and screaming back into the urban fantasy genre?

The Shambling Guide to New York City
Mur Lafferty
358 Pages
Orbit Books
May 28, 2013

Zoe Norris has returned to New York City after a disastrous exit from her last job in an attempt to rebalance her life and find some semblance of normalcy in the Big Apple.  Zoe finds a job posting for a travel guide editor posted on the corkboard of an extremely odd bookstore and decides to go for it.

Little does she know that Underground Publishing is a publishing house that caters to a very exclusive group… specifically zombies, vampires, succubi, incubi, and various other creatures of the night – referred to in the novel as the coterie.

Zoe interviews for the job with a vampire named Phil, who also runs the publishing company.  After getting the job, her co-workers are a couple vampires, some zombies, a death goddess, and a water sprite.  Oh and a succubus named John who doesn’t take no for an answer.

So far, so good, right?  If the rest of the novel following was about Zoe and her attempts to get in touch with the coterie and write the actual book that she gets hired to write… I would probably have enjoyed the novel a lot more.  But… things get convoluted and overstuffed pretty quickly for my tastes.

Instead of focusing on the writing of a travel guide for the coterie, the novel becomes a battle against the end of the world.  Now this isn’t entirely unprecedented, as Zoe is taught to defend herself against the more evil members of the coterie by a woman named Granny Good Mae and this seems to indicate the direction the novel will be going, but…

It just doesn’t work for me.  A lot of this comes from the sheer amount of coincidences that come together as the novel draws to a close.  Not only is Zoe’s hunky next-door neighbor Arthur involved in the weirdness that’s going on, but so is a member of Zoe’s previous life in Raleigh, NC.

That said… there’s good humor in the novel and the general plot works well enough.  I was entertained enough to keep on reading to the end and Lafferty does a great job of making Zoe feel distinctly uncomfortable in her role as savior of New York City.  She isn’t some kind of superhero, ably meeting every challenge presented to her.  Instead, she’s a spunky every-woman who only wanted a job editing and writing a book.  And I can respect that aspect of the character deeply.

I just feel that I’m not the target audience for this novel.

In fact, I’m certain that my dislike of this novel isn’t so much a knock against the novel itself, but of my general distaste for urban fantasy as a whole. If you’re a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, or Laurell K Hamilton’s pre-porn novels… you will probably enjoy this.

And Mur Lafferty runs a fantastic website that houses her fantastic podcast I Should Be Writing, among other things.  Even if you’re not into urban fantasy, like me, there’s plenty to enjoy in that series!

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Physics, Comedy, And Alternate Realities – Tom Holt’s Doughnut

Previous to this, I had never read any of Tom Holt’s work.  In fact, I don’t know that I had ever heard of Tom Holt.  This makes me sad.  Mainly because he’s got such great titles, such as Snow White and the Seven Samurai, Djinn Rummy, and Grailblazers.

From what I understand, his books are a little odd.

In fact, from reading Doughnut, I think he’s easily comparable to comedy genius Christopher Moore, who writes with a similar recognition of how ridiculous the ongoing story is.  Holt also writes similarly to another sci-fi\humor genius Douglas Adams.  Holt’s British wit pours off of every page.

So the basics of the story are this: Theo Bernstein is a physicist, a very smart one.  So smart, that he works at the Very Very Large Hadron Collider (VVLHC) in Switzerland.  Or he did before a very minor error in calculation caused the entire thing to explode, taking with it his arm, his job, and (collaterally) his wife.

Oh, but his arm is still there.  But invisible.  Why?  Nobody knows!  And Theo, as he’s out on his ass with no money, no job, and no family to fall back on, doesn’t have much time to think about it  He works in a slaughterhouse for several weeks until he receives a letter telling him that’s he has inherited his old college professor’s safe deposit box.

His professor, Pieter van Goyen, must had a really sick sense of humor because the deposit box contained a small empty bottle, a powder compact, and an apple.  Oh and a rather odd note explaining how he had managed to set up a job for Theo and that the bottle might end up somehow killing him.

What a friend!

From there, things go from bad to worse.  Pieter’s letter explains that there’s this guy with a job opening that Theo would be an absolutely dynamite fit for, so Theo reluctantly seeks out this position.  And who could blame the guy? His alternative is trucking cow parts from one side of a hot, smelly factory to another… how bad could it be?

Well…  when he arrives at the hotel, it seems… closed.  Or if not closed, then going through some major renovations.  The hotel’s proprietor, Bill, and the only other staff member, a young woman named Matasuntha, are extremely odd.  In fact, they’re awfully interested in the bottle small bottle in Theo’s possession.

This is where the novel takes a turn for the weird.  On night, after solving on a massively complex formula he discovers at the bottom of the empty bottle, Theo is transported to a new, different world.  Upon arrival, sky-writing informs Theo that he now resides in a “hand-held portable pocket universe” known as YouSpace.

That’s where I’m going to leave the plot.  Suffice it to say, it gets weirder.  Theo soon joins in on a hunt through YouSpace (multiple YouSpaces, technically) searching for answers to why the VVLHC exploded, what happened to his arm, and where his brother disappeared to all those years ago…

Holt is exceptionally clever in the plotting of a story that becomes increasingly complex as Theo begins traveling into further and further dimensions and it all works.  Or seems to…  I was an English major, not a scientist.

And the humor!  There’s a lot of dry dialogue, of course, but much of the humor comes from the narration.  My favorite gem comes about when Theo is on the precipice of learning a crucial bit of information.  Holt writes, “He had to ask, but he already knew, with the resigned foreboding of an infant at the font who knows that his three elder brothers are called John, Paul, and George, what the answer would be.”

The best recommendation of this novel I can make is that it reminds me intimately of many Kurt Vonnegut novels that I loved greatly in college.  The humor, the complex mixture of literary and sci-fi moments…  Just a great novel from start to finish.  Check it out if you’re on the hunt for a sci-fi novel with a heart and more than a dash of humor.

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Death’s Perspective – Lessons Born From Tragedy

I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives.  Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.

One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read.  Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.

Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat.  My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight.  In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.

This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of.  And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.

My other solution, for many years, was to write.  I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument.  But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.

Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.

I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back.  I still believe it.  Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December.  Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues.  And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.

I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.

I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that.  But maybe not.  It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue…  I think I spoke in full sentences.  I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.

Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.

It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving.  Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.

After getting home, I asked myself many things.  The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.

Death © Chris Bachalo Source: http://www.chrisbachalo.net/gallery-miscellaneous.html

Death © Chris Bachalo

“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman.  It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams.  In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it.  Why?  Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.

And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief.  The first two pages, denial.  The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway.  He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.

Third page? Anger, of course.  Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.

In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche.  They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action.  We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.

Then… bargaining.  This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.

Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage.  Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies.  Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”

Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world.  Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain.  Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…

The wheel lights up and starts moving.  Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective.  He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel.  Ah, sweet acceptance.

And it works!

It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue.  Oh and a writer analogue.  Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction?  In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer.  And as a reader, so do we.

Well, maybe not The Answer.

There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions.  If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?

But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened.  Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.

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In Appreciation – Brian K Vaughan

Brian K Vaughan writes some of the most convincing, funny, and moving dialogue in comics today.  I’m starting there because he’s one of the most interesting and frustrating comic writers.  Moreso even than Grant Morrison.

Vaughan doesn’t rely on being impenetrable, like Morrison.  Nor does he consistently go for the weird, or the gross-out, like Ellis, or Ennis.  Brian K Vaughan is a simple, straight-forward author who writes intriguing plots, excellent dialogue, and never comes right out and tells you what the fuck is going on!

That said, he’s my favorite author of monthly comics.  I followed Ex Machina from issue 30, until its conclusion at issue 50, and I’ve been picking up the singles of Saga since issue 1 (though it was sold out until I was able to pick up issue 3!) and… that’s all I’ve really picked up from comic stores on a monthly basis.  That should tell you how high I hold Vaughan’s work as a writer.

Hell, I’m even buying his digital-only comic series Private Eye and I never purchase digital content with my own money (a gift card? maybe… a free download with a movie I bought? sure!).  Given the pay-what-you-want structure behind Private Eye (even nothing!), the series is easily worth the money every month(ish) they release a new issue.

But what are the best things Brian K Vaughan has done?  He’s been busy since 1996 and has written for Ultimate X-Men, Wolverine, and Doctor Strange for Marvel.  Vaughan spent time at DC working on Batman and Wonder Woman.  He’s also done Swamp Thing for Vertigo and a veritable crapton of stuff as an independent creator of comics properties.  Below I’ve compiled a Top 5 list of my favorite Brian K Vaughan titles.

5. Pride of Baghdad (2006), Illustrated by Niko Henrichon

Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad tells the story of a pride of lions that escaped from a Baghdad zoo during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States.  I went into this graphic novel not knowing what to think… and it was a really fantastic allegory.

Vaughan manages to portray the suffering of a country with lions people! And Henrichon’s art also manages to convey a humanity and a beauty, even amongst the darkness of war-torn Iraq. Definitely a must-read!

4. Ex Machina (2004-2010), Illustrated by Tony Harris et al.

Ex Machina is an excellently weird mash-up of science fiction and political commentary that would probably be higher on my list if it weren’t for a fairly disappointing ending.  The story follows Mitchell Hundred, the sitting Mayor of New York who was previously a superhero known as The Great Machine.

As The Great Machine, Hundred could communicate with machines, which made his jetpack\ray-gun set-up pretty much ideal… except for the fact that he’s not very skilled.  His career as a superhero is over before it begins… until he stops the second plane from flying into the World Trade Center, an act that catapults him to the Mayor’s house.

The story jumps back and forth in time so that each issue generally starts with a brief flash-back of Hundred’s time as The Great Machine, then following up with a scene from his life as Mayor.  The dichotomy is done very well and Vaughan is able to strike a great balance between superhero antics and political satire.

A great series that would be made greater if it was kind enough to give you more answers when you get to the end.  I know that’s kind of his thing, but… this was a lot more frustrating than the end of Y The Last Man.  Still, a well written mash-up of political intrigue, superhero pathos, and sci-fi madness.

3. Runaways, Illustrated by Adrian Alphona, et al. 

Runaways is, above all else, a whole lot of fun.  A simple story of a group of teens who find out that their parents are the head of an evil secret society called “The Pride” and go on the run to try to fight against the injustice their families want to bring down on Los Angeles.

The only real downside to this series for me is that it is a Marvel title, meaning that it has to tie into the Marvel Universe.  The guest spots with Captain America and Wolverine don’t bug me as much as my general confusion that comes from years of not reading much in the way of Marvel comics at all.

Even with that confusion, the series is worth reading.  Vaughan’s dialogue is (of course) snappy and witty and it is definitely the most fun comic of his that I’ve read.  Beatles references are fast and furious as well, and Vaughan’s not afraid to tug on some heartstrings… In fact, I haven’t read Joss Whedon’s continuation because of how badly Vaughan broke my heart…

2. Saga (2012-present) Illustrated by Fiona Staples

This may be unfair as the series is still in progress (it currently is on a brief hiatus at issue 12), but it is really, really fantastic.  The emotional tie-in is there from the get-go and Fiona Staples is doing such stellar work that I’m willing to call this one right now.

Thus far Saga tells the tale of star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko, two lovers from two different alien races.  They’re on the run from all sorts of people who want them dead… and they’re bringing their newborn child along.  Think “space opera Romeo & Juliet” but with main characters who aren’t completely insufferable twats.

The next issue comes out in about a month and I’m super-excited!!!

1. Y: The Last Man, Illustrated by Pia Guerra et al.

If Runaways broke my heart, Y The Last Man shattered it and turned it to dust.  Lots of people will complain about the lack of a clear explanation by the end.  Heck, it certainly frustrated me not that long ago.  And it still does.

But I don’t think the plague that wipes out all men is the point of the story.  I mean… that’s just the impetus for Yorick to get off his ass and make something of himself.  The plague drives Agent 355 and Yorick together, but their story that comes after it is so much more interesting than any explanation for the plague could be.  It happened and the world moved on.

But the ending… Oh, the ending.  I’m not going to spoil it.  I know the series is old at this point and if you haven’t read it, you should have… blah blah blah.  But I just can’t.  The last few issues are precious and really need to be experienced with no hint of what’s to come. But when you’re finished reading the series… come back here and we can have a nice cry together.

This list is obviously only including Vaughan’s creator-owned properties.  His Batman stories are just OK, his Wolverine mini-series is decent, his Mystique run is pretty great, and his run on Swamp-Thing would have been better if it hadn’t been cut off at issue 20… Well, maybe.  It definitely cuts off too abruptly.

What’s next?  Hopefully not another list!  I’ve recently finished Doughnut by Tom Holt, Silver Linings Playbook, Gaiman’s new one, and I’m just digging into The Shambling Guide to New York City.  Yay reading!

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