22 Comic Books, Series and Storylines Published During the 2000s That Are Just Too Damn Good to Not Read
The decade’s almost over and we still don’t know what to call it. The Aughts? The Oh-Ohs? The Decade When the Party Was Decidedly Over? Whatever you want to call it, the 2000s was a great time for comic fans: comic-based movies showed real muscle at the box office, independent creators saw their works hit bestseller lists, Web comics made huge inroads, and fans showed good taste by eagerly snapping up collections of the great Silver Age runs.
In honor of the end of a memorable decade, here’s a list of 22 recommended reads from the past 10 years. I’m not calling this a “best-of” list for the simple fact I haven’t sampled everything that’s out there. Plus, I always find it a little annoying when best-of lists don’t take into account the huge differences that exist between genres (how, for instance, can you place a rock-’em-sock-’em superhero slugfest next to a heartbreaking autobiography and decide which one is “better”?). So take this list for what it is: a sampling of the stories and series that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the past few years and would heartily recommend to anyone else in the market for a good read.
1. Fables (DC/Vertigo, 2002-present)
The premise is simple: the fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme characters we all know are real, with many of them are living incognito in a New York City neighborhood. They were driven to our “mundy” world from their fairy-tale lands by the Adversary, a mysterious figure whose forces are moving through all the fantasy lands and conquering them one by one. Writer Bill Willingham (with majority of pencilling chores by Mark Buckingham) has mastered the damn near impossible: taken characters as familiar as dirt to most readers and breathed new life into them by weaving an ongoing saga replete with mystery, intrigue, romance, betrayal, action — in short, all the stuff you expect in a good fairy tale.
2. Y: The Last Man (DC/Vertigo, 2002-2008)
Young Yorick Brown and his pet Capuchin monkey wake up one day to find themselves the last surviving male mammals on an Earth where the women are left to deal with a collapsing society and a massive collective case of survivor’s guilt. Knowledge of Yorick’s existence ignites a new arms race among the nations eager to claim him, with at least one radical faction (the ultra-feminist Daughters of the Amazon) intent on finishing what Mother Nature started. But is she really responsible for what happened? Throughout the series, Brian K. Vaughan never reveals the true cause of the gendercide, but it doesn’t really matter: like so much else in life, it’s not so much the cause but how we react to whatever fate throws at us that counts.
3. Powers (Image and Icon/Marvel, 2000-present)
Take your basic gritty TV cop drama (like “Homicide: Life on the Street”) and set it in a world with superheroes and super-powered perps fly the skies and roam the streets. That’s the premise of Powers, a noir series that follows the lives of two homicide detectives in a department devoted to cases that involve “powers” (i.e., people with superpowers). The brainchild of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, Powers revels in exploring (and exploding) the clichés and archetypes of the superhero genre, often in unexpected ways: check out Warren Ellis’s appearance as himself, a “writer of graphic novels” who joins Det. Walker for a ride-along as part of his research and ends up (in a nice piece of meta-commentary) discussing the dominance of superheroes in the medium.
4. The Walking Dead (Image, 2003-present)
Zombies took a big bite (ha!) out of the box office during the decade, with movies like Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and Land of the Dead all having fun — and providing varying levels of political commentary — with the genre. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead travels down a familiar road (lone survivors try to survive in a zombie-infested landscape), but the real treat is in the complex and fascinating personalities that Kirkman gives every one of his characters. Take the Governor, easily one of the most fascinating and deliciously evil villains ever created. He’s a man who takes advantage of the near-total collapse of society to carve out his own little kingdom, and his actions as a leader suggest that zombies aren’t the worst monsters a person can encounter.
5. Daredevil (Marvel, 2001-2006)
In the beginning, Daredevil was essentially Spider-Man Lite, trading quips and fretting about his personal life while dueling with colorfully costumed crooks. That all changed when Frank Miller got his hands on the character in the early 1980s, and the title has experienced a number of creative highs and lows ever since. The four-year run by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev (starting with issue #26 of the second Daredevil series) was definitely one of the highs, with our hero’s secret identity outed by the press, the Kingpin’s re-emergence as a major character, and Daredevil’s eventual surrender to the FBI. Writer Ed Brubaker followed up Bendis’s run with a taut tale about Daredevil’s incarceration with many of the villains he helped put in jail — surely, there are few higher compliments a writer can get than having another talented writer pick up the ball so adroitly and just run with it.
6. All-Star Superman (DC, 2005-2008)
Part of the joy of superhero comics in the 2000s, especially after the blood- and testosterone-soaked era that was the ’90s, was discovering those writers who found new ways to re-interpret the classic superheroes. Superman, in particular, has always been a hard assignment for writers, given his vast array of powers and strict morality. But Grant Morrison (with art assists from fan fave Frank Quitely) was given the freedom to write this 12-issue series apart from “official” continuity, and he responded with a story that stripped the Superman mythos down to its barest elements and rebuilt it in new and glorious ways. It was a critical and commercial success, and it (along with 2006’s Superman Returns film) came out just when most fans needed a reminder of why we still need a Superman in our lives.
7. Unstable Molecules (Marvel, 2003)
“Unstable molecules” is the pseudo-scientific explanation for why the costumes worn by the Fantastic Four are able to stretch, turn invisible, and not burn up when the team members use their powers. In 2003, James Sturm used the name as the title for a four-issue mini-series that was decidedly different from anything else Marvel was publishing at the time. The story focuses on the lives of the four people who were allegedly the inspiration for the Fantastic Four: physicist Reed Richards, boxing trainer Ben Grimm, teenager Johnny Sturm (no relation, one assumes, to the author) and his sister, Susan. The story is set in the 1950s, with all the usual social tensions boiling just under the surface of an Eisenhower-era facade. Not much really happens — and certainly not anything of a superheroic nature, Johnny’s comic-within-a-comic notwithstanding — but the smallest touches are the ones that matter here, from the book’s muted colors to Susan’s growing desperation about her life.
8. Sleeper (DC/Wildstorm, 2003-2005)
Sleeper takes place in a world where some humans have superpowers and fight crime, but this isn’t a story about them. It’s a story about Holden Carver, an agent placed undercover in a criminal organization led by the mysterious Tao. He quickly rises through the ranks and gains access to the inner circle, but his mission is complicated when his handler, the only person who knows about his double-agent status, falls into a coma. Before he knows what’s going on, he’s out in the cold and on the run from his former allies, and wondering where his true loyalties ought to lie. Ed Brubaker creates a cast of fascinating supporting characters (Miss Misery is no simpering sidekick, that’s for sure), turning in a fast-paced story that constantly leaves the reader guessing what’s going to happen next — and who’s going to survive to live another day.
9. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (ABC/Wildstorm/DC, 1999-2007)
Alan Moore came out with a number of great titles this decade — Promethea, Tom Strong, and Top 10 come to mind — but I have to give the nod to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which came out in two six-issue limited series and a graphic novel (a third limited series is being published by Top Shelf and Knockabout Comics). The premise: literary figures from the Victorian Age — including Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and Dracula’s Mina Harker — are brought together to protect the British Empire from dastardly foes (including — shades of H.G. Wells! — a Martian invasion). What could have been a “Justice League of Victorian England” title has become a modern classic, thanks to Moore’s imaginative re-interpretation of some of literature’s best-known characters (P.S. pay no attention to the 2003 Sean Connery movie based on the book).
10. Doctor 13: Architecture and Morality (DC, 2007)
If I had one complaint about comics in the 2000s, it’s that too many writers and readers seemed a bit too concerned with looking cool to the non-believers. It was all well and good, for example, to go to a cocktail party and discuss a book that takes a revisionist twist on a beloved superhero icon, but there seemed to be (at least to me) a tacit agreement to not mention those comics from the past that were, in retrospect, a little bit silly. Thank God Brian Azzarello didn’t get that memo. This book, which originally appeared as a back-up strip in 2006’s Tales of the Unexpected mini-series, unites the Silver Age supernatural debunker Dr. Thirteen with some of the daffiest creations in DC’s library, including a Civil War general ghost, a pint-sized genius, a foppish vampire, and a talking Nazi gorilla. Yes, you read that correctly. The story was a bit labored in its commentary on DC’s approach to continuity, but the real joy was in seeing these oddball characters back in action, despite Dr. Thirteen’s constant assertions that none of this is really happening.
11. Ultimate Spider-Man (Marvel, 2000-2009)
Like a lot of Spider-fans, I had pretty much given up on the wall-crawler long before the horrific Clone Saga storyline during the ’90s ground his legacy into the dust. After several attempts to “fix” the Spider-Man brand with new creative teams and titles (Spider-Man: Chapter One, anyone?), I was a little reluctant to give Ultimate Spider-Man a try. I mean, aren’t we being a little presumptuous calling this the “ultimate” Spider-Man book? But Brian Michael Bendis (it has been his decade, hasn’t it?) and Mark Bagley brought a fresh approach to the character and his universe, retelling the classic stories with just the right number of modern touches to make them seem new again. As if that weren’t enough, USM was the first in Marvel’s Ultimate line-up, taking the same approach to other characters and showing everyone much fun it can be to update Marvel characters for a modern age.
12. Legion of Super-Heroes (DC, 2004-2009)
Speaking of updates. The Legion of Super-Heroes has always been a guilty pleasure of mine; after all, what’s not to love about a group of teenagers from the future banding together to fight evil and giving each other names like Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy? The ’90s and early 2000s saw a number of attempted reboots for the franchise, but none really clicked until Mark Waid and Barry Kitson came on board in 2004 to launch a new LSH series. In this version, the Legion is a symbol of rebellion in a future where human connections are discouraged and teenagers are constantly monitored for signs of “abnormal” behavior. Because of their advocacy on behalf of freedom and youth rights, the Legion has become a political force while at the same time inspiring others with the legends of superheroes from ancient times. Any good sci-fi series delivers good storytelling with a healthy dose of social commentary, and on both points Waid and Kitson delivered.
13. Pride of Baghdad (DC/Vertigo, 2006)
When U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 under the pretense of delivering freedom to its people, it didn’t come as a shock to some when the Iraqis didn’t welcome their “liberators” with open arms: as one lion in Pride of Baghdad tells another, “Freedom can’t be given, only earned.” This story by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Niko Henrichon follows a pride of lions who unexpectedly find themselves liberated from the Baghdad zoo after their human handlers flee the fighting. They meet their new status with mixed emotions, as some welcome the escape from captivity while others are wary of the new reality they are forced to live with — a reality in which their safety is now very much in doubt. Many books and movies were written during the decade about the Iraq invasion, but few captured the insanity of an ill-conceived war effort as effectively as this story.
14. DC: The New Frontier (DC, 2003-2004)
The Second World War is over, America is enjoying a period of peace of prosperity, and for the most part the superheroes who operated during the war years have retired or gone underground. But a new breed of heroes is poised to become the vanguards of America’s next wave of superheroes, regardless of whether the public is ready for them. Far more ambitious than other alternate-reality stories DC has published in recent years, the brilliance of Darwyn Cooke’s tale is that DC’s heroes are shown starting their careers at the same time their published adventures began. (So, for example, Barry Allen becomes the Flash in 1956, the same year as his first appearance in Showcase #4, and Hal Jordan becomes Green Lantern in 1959, coinciding with his first appearance in the comics.) Another plus: Cooke’s art perfectly captures the spirit of the era, using clean lines that manage to capture both the optimism of the era and the style of some of the great comic artists. This is about as good as mainstream comics can get.
15. Persepolis (Pantheon, 2000)
As you might have guessed from the rest of the list, I have a few preferences when it comes to my comic reading. I fully ‘fess up to the fact I tend to like stories that deliver a new spin on the classic comic-book characters, and the sheer volume of work coming out of the independent scene (coupled with my stubborn determination to have a life) makes it damn near impossible to read everything out there. So it’s quite likely I missed more than a few non-traditional works that should have been on this list. I’m thankful, though, that Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis wasn’t one of them. This autobiographical novel depicts Satrapi’s childhood and early adult years in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Ironically, the stripped-down, black-and-white style was perfect for exploring the complexities of a culture that is still unknown to many Westerners. The book (and the animated movie based on it) earned Satrapi some condemnations from Iranian officials who accused her and her “Westernized” outlook of distorting the facts about Iranian history and Islam, but they missed the point: Satrapi was never out to set the record straight about anything, just to tell her own story… and in turn show the world a more human side of a fundamentalist state that the rest of us have been taught to fear.
16. Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (DC, 2009)
It wasn’t the kindest decade for the Caped Crusader. He started the ’00s digging himself out from the rubble of an earthquake-ravaged Gotham, and ended the decade dead. (Or did he? Honestly, I’d stopped keeping track at that point.) In between, he starred in several high-profile series and storylines, including The Long Halloween, “Hush”, “Under the Hood,” and other stories that tested his limits. (On the plus side, his movie career has never looked better.) Amid the highs and lows, Neil Gaiman’s two-issue story, published in the “final” issues of Batman and Detective Comics in 2009, was an absolute delight for any longtime fan. Similar to Alan Moore’s classic “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (the 1980s story billed as the last pre-Crisis Superman tale), WHTTCC presents a “final” Batman story in which friends and foes alike gather to at a wake to remember the man, each one telling a different story about his life and how he died. Each story speaks to a different era in Batman’s publishing career, and collectively they speak to the power Batman has held over the decades as a modern-day myth.
17. 100 Bullets (DC/Vertigo, 1999-2009)
His name is Agent Graves, and if he shows up on your doorstep he’ll offer you four things: a gun, 100 bullets, a photo and incontrovertible evidence that the person in that photo is responsible for ruining your life or causing you some great harm. Oh, and if you use any of the bullets, you will be completely safe from any police investigation. What would you do? Where does Graves get his information? How does he choose the recipients of his largesse? And what kind of game is he playing? These are the kinds of questions that kept Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets going strong for (appropriately) 100 issues, and the only way to get your own answers is to read on and find out.
18. The New Avengers (Marvel, 2005-present)
Marvel’s Avengers franchise started off the decade quite nicely under the guidance of such pros as Kurt Busiek, George Perez and Geoff Johns, but the team disbanded at the end of 2004’s “Disassembled” storyline. Not to worry, though, as a mass super-villain prison break gave rise to a new team featuring old and new Avengers. Brian Michael Bendis (geez, maybe I should start a fan club) and various artists bring the Avengers back to where they should be: right in the middle of everything, and having a hell of a lot of fun being there.
19-20. King (Fantagraphics, 2005)/Riel (Drawn & Quarterly, 2004)
Historical non-fiction has traditionally been a tough sell in the comics business, where publishers tend to favor the fictional and fantastical. But a number of artists put out some great non-fiction works during the decade, and by coincidence two of the best just happened to be created by Canadians. King, Ho Che Anderson’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., was originally published in three parts from 1993 to 2003 and collected in one volume in 2005; Chester Brown’s Riel, about the controversial Canadian rebel leader, ran as a serial from 1999 to 2003 and was published as a collection in 2003. Both tell great stories backed up by meticulous research into the details of each man’s life, and both are essential reading for anyone hoping to understand two men who mattered so much to the history of their countries.
21. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (Hill & Wang, 2006)
Speaking of history… The 9/11 Report is a comic book based on The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, which was published in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At only 15 per cent the size of the original report, the graphic-novel format allows Sid Jacobsen and Ernie Colón to present the essence of the commission’s work in ways that often surpass the impact of a text-only publication. Everybody, from George W. Bush to the terrorists to the victims, is given their due, and the analysis of the day’s events (and the decisions and events that led up to them) are as incisive as any you’re likely to find. Plus it’s a whole lot easier to wade through than the original 800-page report.
22. Bizarro Comics (DC, 2001)
Four words: “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter.” If you can make it through this anthology, in which some of the best independent artists in the business take a sideways crack at DC’s classic superheroes, and not laugh out loud at least once, then you are simply beyond hope.