Yesterday, we covered the Best Comics of 2009, and now to even the scales ComicsAlliance is back with an even more far-reaching list: The 15 Worst Comics of the Decade. Yes, yes, I know that the decade isn't technically over, but most people don't realize that, and we couldn't resist doing a roundup of the very worst comics to come out in the aughts, or the '00s, or whatever else people tried to call this limbo decade, before we roll over to double digits.
We'll be going (mostly) chronologically through our fifteen favorites, by which I mean the ones we hate the most. Some of these will surely come as no surprise, but others may be more unexpected -- drop your own thoughts in the comments if we missed your (least) favorite. We'll be hitting the first seven today, going roughly from 2001 to 2004, with the remaining eight tomorrow. It begins!
In the history of comics, eventually some definitive article will be written on Bill Jemas, one of the oddest, most energizing figures to ever be found wandering near the top of the corporate ladder. This is not that article. But seriously, Bill Jemas, remember that guy? The guy who saved Marvel Comics with methods that, at times, seemed not unlike a doctor attempting to defibrillate a heart patient by tying them to a tree in the rain and throwing electric eels at them blindfolded -- but successful? Yeah, that guy.
Man, he wrote some terrible comics.
For those that don't remember, "Marville: was a 2002 six -- (or seven - I'll explain later) -- issue mini-series written by Bill Jemas that was created for a publicity stunt called U-Decide, which you can probably read about somewhere else on the internet. Suffice to say, two new Marvel Comics series came out of the stunt, Ron Zimmerman's "Ultimate Adventures" and "Marville," and they were both terrible. We'll cover the failing of "Ultimate Adventures" more fully later on, but it was really just painfully boring hackwork, oatmeal made from cardboard with some rat poison on top masquerading as zesty seasoning. "Marville," on the other hand, was something different. It may just be the strangest comic that Marvel has ever published.
Marville ostensibly began as a parody book, a vehicle for Jemas to make fun of his own industry. Marville-the-parody only lasted for two out of it's six issues. The last four were...something else. But first let's talk about the parody issues. I'm a sucker for parody books, and even more for strident, hostile irreverence, and so I actually found myself shockingly predisposed to like "Marville." "Oh no," I wondered. "How will I ever write about this as one of the Worst Comics of the Decade?" I really needn't have worried.
The very first thing you see when you open up the first issue of Marville, is the following disclaimer:
In case you can't read that, it says "An Insider's Guide to Marville #1: Here are a few things you need to know about comic books and about the real world to get the "inside" jokes in Marville #1." The text on the rest of the page proceeds to explain every reference you're about to read, in essence explaining every joke you're about to read before it gets told. Which is just a BRILLIANT way to set up a comedy. I know I like all my humor pre-chewed.
For most of the first two issues, the book merely vacillates between comprehensibly bad (endless AOL jibes, playing off AOL's relationship with DC's parent company Time-Warner at the time) and surreally bad, like a scene where a character from the future goes into a bank after his ATM card (also from the future) doesn't work. The bank manager informs him that his account has $100 million in it but won't open for 3,000 years. Which is a perfectly fine, odd joke.
But then, when the man from the future protests, the banker, out of nowhere, announces that he is Alan Greenspan. He doesn't look anything like Alan Greenspan, and Alan Greenspan has had nothing to do with anything leading up until now...but he says, "My name is Alan Greenspan." He then announces, "I'm famous for creating unprecedented economic prosperity in the 1990's." To which the man from the future replies, "Great. What have you done lately?" And then the scene is just over. "Marville" is full of things like that.
But but but...while "Marville" rarely flirts with competence, it often verges on being sort of amazing. Take a scene from #2, in which the main character, the man from the future, has gotten hold of his money and is just giving it out to people on the street. When a group of guys, semi-menacingly, ask him for money, he simply complies, because he's giving it out anyway. Then Batman shows up out of nowhere and starts beating people to death. And so does Iron Man. And so does Black Panther. Batman literally rips a black man's arm off and beats him with it:
On the handy-dandy pre-emptive joke-explaining page at the beginning of the issue, it is stated that "Batman, Black Panther and Iron Man are all billionaire super-hero crime fighters." The whole scene is peppered with dialogue about how much money these guys have, and how they do nothing for the poor. Iron Man cops to shutting down the factory that all of the people they're beating up used to work in and outsourcing the jobs to Mexico. Then Black Panther saves Iron Man from saying "n****r" out loud, thus preserving the reputation of a fellow billionaire while mercilessly beating the life out of the poor. Then Rush Limbaugh shoots them. I am not making any of this up.
The whole scene is a weirdly edgy and mental attempt at calling out the superhero obsession with fascist violence and wealth, and to make a statement about how class divides transcend racial divides, and it's all being delivered via mayhem and bloodshed. It may be too much of a mess to make any real point, but when was the last time you read a Marvel comic that tried to take on subjects like that without slipping into some namby-pamby weak-spined "can't we all just get along" middle ground?
There's also a transcendentally odd two-page spread later on that sexualizes the criminal justice system, first with an arrested criminal licking the fingerprint ink off the fingers of a cop dressed as a hooker, then to prisoners in central booking slow-dancing by candle-light, and then finally lawyers kneeling in front of a reclining judge who thinks in a thought balloon, "Oral arguments, you bad boy." Then the criminal "gets off" when his case is dismissed, and he's let out of the crazed sex world of American justice.
As of issue #3, Jemas abandons the regular parody format of the book. The art becomes blocky, ugly computer generated stuff, and within four pages the characters have met God. God takes them skinny-dipping at the dawn of time, and then the rest of the series is devoted to Jemas' creationist-lite beliefs about the dawn of man, which involve Wolverine, the first human. Even though including Wolverine is an obvious jokey metaphor, it isn't hard to see that Jemas is actually quite serious with a lot of his theology and opinions about the true nature of evolution. For anyone who read this series, it should have come as no surprise when it was reported earlier this year that Jemas now devotes most of his time to translating the Bible from the original Hebrew.
Issue #6 of the series, the final issue in comics form, is spent recapping the previous three, and it's revealed at the end that the main character is pitching the story as a comic book series to an unseen publisher, in a dark room with only a chair and an exit sign on the wall. The story ends abruptly with the main character standing up and walking towards the exit. The last page of the comic is a press release about the then-upcoming revival of Marvel's creator-owned Epic Comics line.
According to Wikipedia, "The final issue of "Marville," issue #7, did not actually contain a story; instead, it contained the submissions guidelines to Marvel's new Epic Comics imprint." Thus ended Bill Jemas' own six-issue "Cerebus", a parody-turned-Bible study that's partly about the power of creator-owned comics. Also of note: "Marville" had horrifically ugly Greg Horn cheesecake covers that I'd wager were the first and possibly only time a major comics company put dorsal nudity on the cover of a comic. 2002 was a hell of a banner year.
Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001 - 2002)
As Neil Young said, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." So let's all go back in time and kill Frank Miller. This follow-up to "The Dark Knight Returns," a pivotal book in the development of the American superhero, is so mashed-together and befuddling, the only logical place to start is the title. Hilariously similar to a chapter of "Star Wars," some invisible synchronicity kicks and registers how painfully disappointing The Prequels were, how far yon mighty George Lucas fell, smacking his head on every rung of the ladder on the way down. The massive failure of "DK2" (grindgrindgrind) had the same effect on Miller.
While most -- though not all -- of his output in the late nineties disappointed, a return to the character he was most associated with seemed to proffer a Darth Vader-like shot at redemption. Alas, the insanity that seeped in during "Sin City" is so powerful, it not only botched the comeback, it spread to Lynn Varley. Known throughout her career for lush washes and supple brushwork, on "DKSA" she goes the digital route. And frankly, it looks amateurish.
Each page seems to clash with the one opposite, hardly any effort is paid to depth, and in general the eyes seem to be arguing over where to look. It's hardly all Varley's fault, though. There are occasional moments that remind of Miller's fine cartooning and his European-flavored style, but the layouts look odd and dashed-off. The storytelling is sloppy and confusing, and overall it just looks goofy.
Defenders claim we're not getting it, that it's a misunderstood media critique, it's aimed at twenty-first century youth, that it's supposed to be confusing. Assuming for a moment that that's true, what does that say about a creator, when his intent is to bombard you with seizure-inducing flashes of light while blasting you with air horns and murdering your childhood? What does it say when DKSA wasn't the only Miller book in contention for this list?
No, friends. Miller is gone. Burn your idols, kill the Buddha, and be obliged that you never saw "Holy Terror."
Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose (Entire Decade)
Billed as "one of the most female-empowering comics on the stands" in both the "Previews" catalog and its own letters page, "Tarot" came about in 1999, when writer/artist Jim Balent left DC after 77+ issues of "Catwoman" (which, no lie, is an incredibly impressive resume) and decided that there just weren't enough huge-breasted bikini-clad sword-toting witches in comics.
Thus, BroadSword Comics (the company whose logo is literally a broad holding a sword) and their flagship title were born. To be perfectly fair -- or at least as close as we plan on getting in a Worst of the Decade list-- if you can get past the fact that the characters' breasts tend to range in size from "huge" to "ridiculously huge" and the issues where Balent heavily references photos of his pals in the Wiccan community (occasionally killing them en masse, which is pretty weird when you tihnk about it), it's a pretty decent-looking book, art-wise.
It's the story that's the problem. Though you could make a case for the fact that Tarot does flip traditional gender roles (her boyfriend is an amazingly ineffectual super-hero who is often rendered unconscious and promptly molested by any women in a hundred yard radius), it doesn't do a great job with presenting a strong female character either.
As Tarot barreled into the 21st century, the allegedly empowering comic saw her in so much bondage that even Golden Age Wonder Woman thought things were getting extreme, menaced by an octopus woman who "fed" through tentacles that grew out of her genitals (#24); battling against a woman with breast implants that house nuclear weapons (#29); chained up, sexually abused and literally milked so that a bad guy can eat her bodily fluids (#45) defeated in combat with her fully-clothed male equivalent who strips her naked over the course of a swordfight, which arouses her to no end despite the fact that he is literally about to murder her (#50); forced by the god Pan to perform a striptease against her will (#56); and faced, of course, with The Infamous Haunted Vagina (#53). Oh, and in #42, she teamed up with the ghosts of the firefighters who died on 9/11. Seriously.
And those are just the highlights.
Chuck Austen's "X-Men" (2002 -2004)
Writing the X-Men is not an easy task. As the best-selling comic of the modern era and key to every junior high-schooler's heart, it draws a lot of attention from editorial and the media. The culture built up around Chris Claremont's run is a rabid, peculiar one, and the world-at-large exposure of movies and big-market dominance engendered a mess of crossovers, bad event comics, and continuities that look like they took a shotgun blast to the face. The X-Men have reduced good writers to hacks over and over again. On top of all that, Chuck Austen comes in directly after Grant Morrison's frenetic, energizing run, the best of the decade. So we cut Austen some slack.
With which he Carradines himself. Despite the implied margin for error, Austen manages to rewrite the Bell curve with a random, melodramatic, creepily sexual mess. X-books need a little sex to be firing on all cylinders, but preferably not in a way that's so rape van. The list of weird sexual situations is longer than Juggernaut's (arm): Jubilee and Husk share sexual fantasies at a grave. Stacy X – essentially a red version of movie Mystique – has the mutant power to control pheromones, but really all she does is make people want to have sex with her (psst, that's not a mutant power). Stacy X and Husk engage in a catfight, and in the absolute worst offense, She-Hulk bangs Juggernaut. Augghh!! We all know Marvel has treated She-Hulk like she's on the cast of "Mad Men," but this is just... gross.
Plots seem random and slapped-up. Weird justifications are given artlessly: Juggernaut's just a big, angry kid in a suit, there was a real Xorn who was not Magneto and oh yeah there's a brother, because fans really liked Xorn and were really shocked and heart-broken and Morrison's twist and why not just biopsy the impact completely? Then there's the legendary "Draco" storyline, which goes something like this: The Devil has been on Earth, impregnating women for years, so that he can go to Earth. And he's Nightcrawler's father! And he's The Devil!
Some very good artists had the severe misfortune of working on Austen's run. Sean Phillips, Ron Garney, and Phillip Tan did good work, and Salvador Larrocca was spectacular despite a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" so unnecessary it might as well have been a third nipple. The awful really hit the fan when "Asian sensation" Kia Asamiya put the nose in X-noseMen, but really, it didn't matter who was drawing it. The stories were so random, the revelations so obvious, the characterizations so lame, Michaelangelo (the artist or the turtle) couldn't have saved it. Sorry, Charlie. Shouldn't have named a character Maximus Lobo.
Ultimate Adventures (2002 - 2004)
While Ron Zimmerman's name doesn't conjure up quite the knee-jerk fan-rage that, say, a Rob Liefeld does, he's pretty close to Jeph Loeb-level for a lot of people. Zimmerman was/is a TV writer who in the early 2000s was one of Jemas and Quesada's pet writers. Overall he was handed three high-profile mini-series -- "Ultimate Adventures," "Rawhide Kid MAX," and "Get Kraven" -- before Marvel apparently gave up on him in the face of widescale antipathy.
Aside from the idiot homophobes who still take shots at the gay themes in "Rawhide Kid," there's not much arguing with the crowd when it comes to Zimmerman's work. His comic books really are just terrible. Maybe the worst thing about them is that they aren't even bad in an entertaining or interesting way -- they just have aggressively boring plots, unimaginative characters, and stilted, overwritten dialogue that thinks it's clever. Nowhere are these features more on display than the improbable addition to the Ultimate line, "Ultimate Adventures."
Basically an overlong Batman and Robin parody, "Ultimate Adventures" is a comic book about an orphan boy that won't shut up and the superhero stories that take place sort of in the background of him not shutting up. Yeah, sure, there's technically a plot -- Hank Kipple is an orphan who is adopted by an off-brand Bruce Wayne who intends to train him as a sidekick. There's a villain that shows up about halfway through the series, and eventually there's a fight, and then an ending. But really the whole book is just an excuse for Zimmerman to write as much terrible "funny" dialogue as possible and jam it into Hank Kipple's mouth. This two-page spread of the orphan boy just wandering through the Bat Hawk-Owl Cave with verbal diarrhea pretty much sums up the entire book:
(click to enlarge)
There really isn't much more to the book than that. The Ultimates make an appearance to offer Zimmerman's Mary Sue slacker fake-Batman a place on their team, just so he can show how awesome he is by turning it down and then fighting Captain America to a standstill, for no reason. There's an origin story for Hawk-Owl that doesn't really make much sense and includes a super-stereotyped Asian guy who just pops in out of nowhere. The only vaguely clever part of the book is the school principal-turned villain whose weapon is a spanking paddle, but "vaguely clever" is pretty much all that amounts to. All in all, the book is a fart in the wind. Duncan Fegredo's art is solid, but can't save Zimmerman's script. It's too bad to be good and too dull to be so-bad-it's-good. It commits the greatest crime a piece of entertainment ever can: it's just boring.
Have you ever wanted to read a comic where Spider-Man's kindly Aunt May and Uncle Ben just go at it over the course of one hot, horny summer? If you said yes, then thanks for reading ComicsAlliance, Mark Millar, because you are the only one.
That is more or less the plot of Marvel's utter trainwreck from 2003, "Trouble," and while it's actually about May and Ben (and Peter's parents, Richard and Mary) when they were attractive, Terry Dodson-drawn teenagers, but good luck getting the image of Aunt May classic getting it on out of your head while you're reading this thing.
This is one of those comics where every single thing about it makes you want to ask why it's happening. Why did two talented creators come together to do a comic book version of "Porky's" set in an undefined past that tied into the Spider-Man, the company's corporate mascot? Why did Marvel think it was a good idea to approve a pitch that undoubtedly included the words "sexy Aunt May?" Why does it end up being about Aunt May secretly being Peter's mother, who switched places with her best friend for no discernable reason? Why did it have photo covers featuring two blonde models in bikinis, one of whom was usually shot so that her face was obscured? Why was anyone surprised when the newly resurrected "Epic" imprint crashed when this was its flagship title? Why in the hell does this thing actually exist?
We have no idea, folks. And yet it does.
Identity Crisis (2004)
Much as Adolf Hitler was once named as Time's Man of the Year, I submit for your approval: "Identity Crisis," Superhero Comic of the Decade.
No other comic so perfectly captures the zeitgeist of what was truly popular in superhero comics in the Oughties. Sure, sure, "The Authority" revolutionized action, Bendis revolutionized pacing, "All-Star Superman" revolutionized nostalgia, but none of them hold a candle to Brad Meltzer's epic. It truly captured the mood of a generation. It told a million couple hundred thousand eager fans what they wanted to hear: You can rape/murder your cake and have it too.
"Identity Crisis" would be better named Maturity Crisis. At its core is a harsh struggle between the contradictory impulses to both fetishize the past and move into the future. The book relies on an affection for and fascination with up to 70 years of superhero comics, but spends the bulk of the time showing you the "ugly truth" behind those comics of yesteryear.
Charming flourishes of superheroic behavior are revealed to be narcissistically engineered for publicity. Brutal rapes take place behind the scenes, between the adventures. Goofy, dumb villains are explained to have had their minds and personalities telepathically violated and altered to be that way. Everything in Identity Crisis is designed as an excuse for adults who are secretly embarrassed by their love of superheroes. "Sure," it says, "We know superhero comics used to be all Biff Bam Pow, but here are very serious and adult reasons why they seemed that way, and all the serious and adult things that were going on behind the scenes. Serious. Adult."
"Identity Crisis" didn't invent this game, but it plays it to such an extreme that it now owns it like Tiger Woods owns golf. It served as a battle cry, a signal to open the floodgates and let loose such other great moments of the decade as Wonder Dog Eats Marvin And Hunts Wendy, and Mr. Mind As Very Serious Spider-Bat Thing.
All of this is not to mention that the book is just a mess on a basic storytelling level. The centerpiece sequences of the book -- the much-discussed rape of Sue Dibny and mind-wiping of Dr. Light and Batman -- never pay off within the actual narrative of the book, but are instead left dangling, along with several minor sequences that simply make no sense in the context of this book alone. The murder mystery central to the plot is dispatched in the most half-assed way possible, when the murderer, with a forced casualness that's painful to read, just happens to ask the one question that reveals knowledge only the killer could know.
There's also a truckload of unfortunate gender issues and semi-Freudian father-son stuff going on that would require a whole other, longer essay to enumerate. Just to preview quickly: all the characters are explicitly labeled via caption. The one character labeled "wife" is raped and murdered. Two out of three of the characters labeled "father" kill each other after reuniting with their estranged sons. And the one woman labeled "divorcee" is revealed to be a violent psychopath. Whenever she engages in or discusses this violent psychopathic behavior, the comic always shows us a close-up of a magazine cover picturing her, with the words "On Divorce" printed big. There's oh so much more.
"Identity Crisis" opens with a caption that reads, "Thirty Minutes Till Now." It is a declaration: you are in the past. I will bring you to the now. And it does. Among the images that are captioned as "Now" are a tombstone, an old hand clutching a newspaper, and the burned and disfigured corpse of a pregnant woman. "Identity Crisis" is the embodiment of all of the worst aspects of current super-hero comics. Welcome to the now.
Click NEXT for the Worst Comics of the Decade, 2005-2009!
ComicsAlliance is where comic books and pop culture collide, superheroes battle through movies and video games, and graphic novels steal the headlines.
For the latest news on Marvel Comics, DC Comics, comic downloads, comic book movies, digital comics, free comics, and comic book movies, check out Comicsalliance.com.