The Cosmic Treadmill

(Some of) The Best Comics of 2001 (And Beyond!)

Last time in the Treadmill, I promised to share some of the best comics of 2001 with you. And I’m still going to. But in the interest of keeping these columns from becoming too long, I’m going to be breaking up the list into a series of columns. This will be the first, and will cover a few of the better ongoing series on the stands right now. For the next few columns (with an interruption for a full report from this weekend’s MegaCon, and possibly a few other flights of fancy), I’ll continue to discuss some of the best comics of the last year or so. Think of it as getting super-sized for free!

Throughout today’s column (and indeed, the life of this column), I’ll try to give some idea – via hyperlinks – of where you may be able to pick some of these books up – always assuming that you’ll first check out your friendly neighborhood comic shop, where they can most likely help you.

Wizard gets a couple right

[[jsa]] I usually avoid Wizard, the monthly magazine that purports to be the comic fan’s bible, like the plague, because over the last few years, it’s degenerated into a sophomoric, predictable, simultaneously self-loathing and narcissistic waste of paper that I shudder to think of as the public face of comics. Additionally, they often tend to feature and/or support books that are of a lesser caliber, often stressing art over story (when the two really need to work in concert to make the book a success).

So I was surprised to learn that they’re really putting a push behind two of the best, most underrated ongoing comics on the stands right now, DC Comics’ JSA (which was named Best Series of 2001), and Marvel Comics’ Exiles (which they recently named “Book of the Month”). Both series are centered on straightforward super-team action, but each has its own special twist.

JSA follows the adventures of the world’s first superteam, the Justice Society of America. The JSA was created way back in 1941, making their debut appearance in All-Star Comics #3. The group lived up to that comic’s title, as it consisted of the top two characters in each of DC Comics’ and All-American Comics’ anthology series.

Today, most of the original members of the JSA are dead or retired, but the group soldiers on. There are a few remaining original members, kept alive and vital either by their super-powers or twists of fate, but the bulk of the group these days is made up of the original members’ children, protegees, and namesakes. There’s a real sense of history and nobility in this series that’s missing in most super-hero comics.

But the book’s biggest strength is its writing. Author Geoff Johns (frequently aided and abetted by co-writer David Goyer, though the latter took a large part of 2001 off) is a master at balancing exciting super-hero plots with gripping, absorbing characterization. It’s rare in a team book with a large cast that you feel you really get to know all the characters, but Johns and Goyer really manage to get under their characters’ skins and make the reader care.

The art featured in the book has also been a strong point. Penciller Steve Sadowski had been the book’s primary artist for most of its run, but recently left the book, and while many were concerned about the loss of his fine, dynamic line work, the first issue by his replacement, Leonard Kirk, was released this week, and hardcore fans can breathe a little easier – the book’s in good hands.

If JSA has one fault, it could be that the book relies heavily on the history of the DC Universe, and as such, can seem a little inaccessible to new readers. I recommend that new readers start with either the first collection of the series, JSA: Justice Be Done, which collects the series’ first five issues (with some additional material), or the recent stand-alone issue, #31, which is an excellent introductory look at the team.

[[exiles]] Exiles, meanwhile, is best described, in true Hollywood studio pitch fashion, as Quantum Leap meets Sliders meets X-Men. Writer Judd Winick (who you may remember from his stint on MTV’s The Real World a few years back) has taken a group of time-and-dimension lost X-Men (each from different realities) and thrown them together with a mission: travel to new dimensions and make right what would otherwise go wrong. The kicker? If they fail, they’re returned to their original universes, but will find those universes horrifically changed, to their personal detriment. Oh, and yes, they can die – and if (and when) they do, they’re replaced by a new member.

Winick’s approach is somewhat akin to Marvel’s old What If? comic, which imagined how the Marvel Universe would be if key events had happened differently. The big difference is that where What If? was an anthology, Exiles features a regular core group of characters discovering these alternate realities, giving the reader a root in the stories, and a team to care about. And given that the group is made up of alternate reality versions themselves, anything can happen to them – and it does. In the title’s ten-issue run to date, they’ve already lost two teammates, and a third revealed a shocking development in the newest issue, released just this week.

So you get the fun of seeing other-dimensional versions of the familiar Marvel Universe characters and the excitement of a book where – very literally – anything can happen. Moreover, Winick excels at characterization, so when bad things happen to these good people, you really feel for them.

Penciller Mike McKone has a beautiful, clean line that makes Exiles as pretty to look at as it is exciting to read. He’s a dynamic storyteller, and every bit as much an asset to the book as Winick is. But despite the book being part of Marvel’s mega-selling X-Men franchise, it gets surprisingly little fanfare or press. It’s a shame, because the book is one of the strongest titles in the Marvel line, and one I await anxiously every month.

Marvel is collecting the series’ first four issues in a trade paperback later this month, which should be an ideal place for new readers to jump on.

A quick straw vote

How often would you like to see the Treadmill published? I’ve had it in the back of my head that after an initial flurry, I’d settle into a weekly column, but if there’s interest, I could be persuaded to write more frequently. Drop us a line at letters@ink19.com – or leave a comment on this story – and let us know what you think!

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone that took the time to write or comment on the Treadmill’s first installment. I’m having a lot of fun with this, and your support makes it all the more worthwhile!

That’s all the time we have for today’s Treadmill. Early next week, we’ll be back with a full report from Orlando’s MegaCon, and coming soon: The Incredible Hulk, Catwoman, Hopeless Savages, Blue Monday, Box Office Poison, Ruse (and a look at CrossGen Comics), Alias, Big Clay Pot, X-Force, Green Arrow, Top 10, Transmetropolitan, and much, much more! ◼


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