The Stack – Best Of The Best: 2018

by Sage Ashford

Hi, and welcome to a special edition of The Stack, my weekly (mostly) comics commentary column. I always feel a little weird when people start rolling out their Best of lists in the latter half of November and December, as if great work isn’t still coming out during the last six weeks of the year. For that reason, I decided to hold out until the beginning of January before I put out my own list.  So now here we are, ten of my absolute favorite ongoing comics from 2018.  Hopefully you find at least one book in the bunch you haven’t heard of and feel encouraged to check it out!

Runner-Up: IDW Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: It’s insane how despite being rebooted about as much Batman has since their introduction in 1987, this book is as good as it is. It helps having one of the original creators working on the book, one willing to find new spins on these characters while remaining true to who they’ve been. Currently, the boys’ biggest challenge has been dealing with their father Master Splinter taking over the Foot Clan after the defeat of the Shredder, and the rift in their family it’s caused.  The strain was most clearly shown in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Macro-Series one shots, each focusing on a different member of the the main group, but it’s clear it’s all building to a head coming next year. At the same time, watching the team deal with the human supremacist Bishop while also meeting the growing number of mutated animals around them makes it obvious they’ve got tons of stories left to tell with this popular group of 80’s heroes.  This is easily the best rendition of the Turtles since the 2003 4Kids’ series.

10. Blackbird: Fantasy’s never looked so fashionable. Blackbird making it onto the list surprises even me, but when I was thinking about the comics I’d read in 2018 to make this list it leapt out at me. Jen Bartel, Triona Farrell, and Sam Humphries might not be constructing the most complicated story I’ve ever read (yet), but it’s got an emotionally resonant core that anyone who’s ever lost a family member before will understand instantly.  And perhaps just as important, everyone looks so. Freaking. Cool.  Main character Nina is pulled into the world of the Paragons after her sister is kidnapped by a giant monster known as The Great Beast (shown above), a world where apparently everyone has to be so sharply dressed you can cut yourself turning the pages. I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy stories, but the way Bartel designs all of her characters everything feels so otherworldly I’m not sure the adjective “urban” even fits–just looking at them makes you feel like you’ve been pulled into another world, just like Nina.

9. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Beyond the Grid: Like quite a few people, I came into BOOM! Studio’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers series with their major event, Shattered Grid. But despite the spectacle of seeing a Super Sentai crossover playout in an American comic, the story itself didn’t really grab me.  While the series was loaded down with characters from every season of Power Rangers, they neglected to develop their version of these characters for lapsed Power Rangers fans, so it felt more like action figures in explosive set pieces.  Well, more than usual for a major event.

But Beyond the Grid, the direct fallout from the events of Shattered Grid, has been markedly better. Marguerite Bennett and Simone Di Meo have made this title their own, taking a select group of Rangers from different teams over the years and sticking them in a dying universe with no way to get home, their morphing energy limited, and a powerful new threat willing to kill them all to make it out of its universe. The threat is bigger than ever, but with the team scaled down to a manageable size, it’s far easier to care about the characters. Beyond the Grid feels like what I was hoping the BOOM! comic would’ve been all along–carving it’s own lore with some of the coolest superheroes from the 1990s.

8. Avengers: It took some time for this book to find its footing, but Avengers finally feels like the flagship book of the Marvel Universe it’s meant to be again.  That feeling’s been missing since Jonathan Hickman left the comic back after the end of his Secret Wars storyline, but now it’s back here, with the team taking on foes no single superhero could withstand. But where Hickman bloated the cast size into the dozens, Aaron and McGuinness have gone back to the classic formula: take the biggest and best Avengers, add some new characters to the mix, and throw everything possible at them. It’s worked so far, as I haven’t been this invested in the book in years. Though it’s still early days, I’m confident in the creative team, and look forward to how they’ll handle the Avengers getting involved in the War of the Realms, when the forces of Roxxon and the dark elves bring their endless thirst for conquest to Midgard.

7. Immortal Hulk: Immortal Hulk is proof a great writer can make me love almost anything.  Because I am not a Hulk fan–I see him as a stupid rage monster constantly blaming the world for being unable to control his own emotions.  And I am not a horror fan–some people are fear junkies, but I like sleeping at night.  But Al Ewing has given us a superb comic that is both about the Hulk and very much a horror book and it’s one of the books I look forward to the most every month.  As the adjective in the title suggests, this version of the Hulk is literally immortal–every issue Banner dies, only for the night to come…and the beast within him to revive, enraged at the harm that’s come to his alter ego, and out for revenge against anyone who stands in his way.

Ewing strips away the extraneous pieces of Hulk lore that’s accumulated over the last two decades–there are no alien planets to become conqueror of or a half-dozen multi-colored variations on the Jade Giant. It’s just the basics: a man constantly trying to run the danger of the outside world, and the monster within himself, and failing to do either.  Meanwhile, Joe Bennett has clearly leveled up his work with this book, creating some of the most unsettling images–whether it’s body horror, or the bone-chilling sight of a Hulk that finally knows the natural opposite of rage: fear.

6. Shazam: What’s keeping this out of the Top 5 is there’s only a single issue out. Despite a somewhat rocky start when he first rebooted the World’s Mightiest Mortal during the New 52 era, Johns has proved as usual he knows how to get right to the core of what makes a character tick and find compelling ways to present them to his audience. Centering on the “Family” part of the Marvel Family, Johns and Eaglesham re-introduce us to the group of kids sharing the lightning in this new era, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Over in his maxi-series “Doomsday Clock” Johns is writing about an actual battle occurring on the sliding scale between idealism and cynicism, and now here with Shazam we get a superhero comic firmly planted on the idealistic side of things. A sign of things to come?  Hopefully, though for now I’d just be satisfied with Captain Marvel getting the focus and respect he deserves back again.  Well, that and more adventures of Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.

5. Mr. and Mrs. X: Mr. and Mrs. X exists for every X-Men fan craving something different from the norm. A palate cleanser for all of us who’ve grown tired of endless, obliterated tomorrows of future past and hopeless todays where mutants aren’t just feared and hated, but nearly extinct.  Instead, it sticks to a relatively simple premise: the hottest couple in the X-World finally settling down and committing to one another. It’s got the soap opera romance of the classic Claremont era without beating you over the head with references to the time period.  In fact, even though Kelly Thompson’s knowledge of everything X-related is present in every issue she’s done, it never feels oppressive. Instead, she uses it to show these two characters have a history–and shows how both of them are finally ready to overcome their respective histories together rather than apart.  This is miles ahead of everything else happening right now in the X-World, and makes me feel kinda bummed Thompson won’t be carrying the flagship Uncanny ongoing when the Disassembled weekly storyline is finished.

4. Justice League: I was pretty cold on Scott Snyder taking over Justice League when it was first announced, but I’m happy to announce I couldn’t have been more wrong.  This is the big, insane action of the Morrison Era league of the late 90’s merged with the friendliness of the Super Friends and character development of Justice League Unlimited. Every arc they’re tackling impossible threats–one arc it’s ancient sea gods from other worlds, the next they’re landing on a version of Hawkgirl’s homeworld, Thanagar Prime, removed from time and space.

But no matter what they never forget the heart of these characters–they work well together not just because they’re powerful, but because they know each other from years of working alongside one another.  They’re close enough friends to take turns making fun of Bruce’s Bat-voice, and still manage to save humanity from the Legion of Doom.  Whatever soul the New 52 version of these characters seemed to be missing is bursting from every page in this comic, making it a potential challenger for one of the best Justice League runs of all time without even finishing its first year yet.

3. IDW Transformers: Though the image above is from James Roberts’ quirky Transformers: Lost Light comic, this entry is devoted to all of the Transformers comics coming from IDW’s main TF universe.  After hundreds of issues and thirteen years starting back in 2005, IDW finally decided to sunset what has to be the longest running version of Transformers continuity ever.  And while in hindsight it’s clear they were rushing to get us to the end point, every comic managed to stick the landing.  From the ongoings Lost Light and Optimus Prime to the mini-series Transformers: Unicron, all of them gave fans the satisfactory endings they deserved for sticking with this world for nearly thirteen years.

Though it’s finally over, the IDW comics will always be special. They didn’t just add humanity to these characters, they created a unique universe and culture of cybernetic life. They allowed these characters to escape the endless war of Autobot vs. Decepticon and allowed us see the effects a war lasting millions of years could have on a society. I’ll forever be grateful to the creative teams on all of those ongoings, one-shots, and mini-series for never being satisfied in merely giving us what we wanted. They relentlessly pushed the boundaries on these characters.  Being progressive, being bold enough to make them queer and female and so, so much more than just generic toys on a shelf. It’s not what we asked for, it’s what we needed–and after decades of doing the same things with these characters over and over again, it’s what they needed as well.

2. The Green Lantern: This is the first time in a decade Green Lantern hasn’t had multiple comic books. Since Geoff Johns raised the profile of the Emerald Gladiator, his universe has been able to sustain two, sometimes three or more ongoings every year. But despite having only a single comic, this is the biggest Green Lantern has felt since Johns left back in 2013, as Morrison brings the kind of scale to the space-faring hero only he could. With bombastic proclamations like “Green Lantern Hal Jordan Brings Justice To The Stars!”, The Green Lantern is restoring the 60s pulp sci-fi roots of Hal Jordan’s character.  And artist Liam Sharp is firmly cementing himself as one of the most talented people in the game right now–just a few months ago he was bringing us the high fantasy of Celtic Mythology in “The Brave and the Bold: Batman and Wonder Woman”, now here he is rendering vegan spider-pirates and alien vampires, and somehow what was already beautiful has become transcendent.  I don’t ever want someone rendering Oa who isn’t Liam again, and we’re only two issues in.

1. Tony Stark: Iron Man: Dan Slott’s understanding of Tony Stark just might be the greatest of any writer to work on the character in the last twenty years.  While other writers generally create their own version of the character, or at best work off the RDJ version in the films, Slott’s Iron Man pulls from fifty plus years of Iron Man history to feel authentic to every reader, no matter when you became a fan of the character.  I’ve talked about this before at length, but Slott’s crafting the ultimate Iron Man comic–everything from the villains to the supporting cast seems to be drawing on classic characters from Iron Man lore.  In some ways he even updates them where necessary, like finally pulling Rhodey out of the War Machine armor considering the guy’s terrible luck in those suits.

At the same time, Slott isn’t running away from doing new things with Iron Man and his universe. The first six issues have dealt with the inherent transhumanist aspect of the character, particularly as someone who’s had literally everything about himself rebuilt from the ground up. It’s also delved into discussing the rights of Artificial Intelligence, since Marvel seems to create another dozen of them every other week.  Slott has a habit of staying on books for a long time, and when it comes to Iron Man I can only hope so–he’s just scratching the surface of what’s possible with the Armored Avenger.

The regular edition of this will continue next week.  See you then!

Sage Ashford

A writer with way too many hobbies, Sage can often be found catching up on the latest anime, or reading a stack of comics between Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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