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'Spider-Man,' the '80s and manga dominate comics

December 26, 2002
By Franklin Harris

Three stories dominated the comic-book industry this year. The first was the theatrical success of "Spider-Man," which has Hollywood searching for other comic-book properties to repackage for the big and small screens.

Marvel Comics alone has three high-profile films due next year: "Daredevil," "X-Men 2" and director Ang Lee's highly anticipated "Hulk."

The second big story was the explosion of 1980s nostalgia comics. Titles like "G.I. Joe," "Transformers" and "Thundercats" have been top sellers all year, at least in comics specialty stores, and are only now showing signs of fading.

And the third was the emergence of Japanese comics, or "manga," in the American market. The two major American manga publishers, Tokyopop and Viz, have largely bypassed the specialty stores and are selling their inexpensive and wildly popular manga collections in bookstores and all-purpose media retailers like Sam Goody and Suncoast.

Best '80s Revival: "Battle of the Planets" (Image Comics) is easily the best of the nostalgia comics. Under the direction of Alex Ross, "Battle of the Planets" has recreated the look and feel of the popular cartoon series and combined it with a more mature sensibility. This pleases both fans of the Japanese version of the cartoon and fans of the more "child friendly" U.S. version. Ross' gorgeous covers, which are some of his best work in years, haven't hurt, either.

Best Manga: There is more manga on store shelves now than ever, but none is more fun than "Love Hina" (Tokyopop). Written and drawn by Ken Akamatsu, "Love Hina" is an engaging romantic comedy, sort of like "Tenchi Muyo!" minus the sci-fi elements. It follows the misadventures of Keitaro Urashima, the unlikely manager of a girls' dorm, as he tries to pass the Tokyo University entrance exam and find true love.

Best Comeback: Leave it to fan-favorite writer Geoff Johns to take one of DC Comics' traditional cellar dwellers and turn it into a hot property. I mean, who last year would have thought "Hawkman" would be one of DC's most popular titles not starring Batman or Superman?

Johns has taken Hawkman back to his Golden Age roots. Hawkman still has some of the sci-fi trappings of his Silver Age incarnation, but now he is half archeologist and half crimefighter. Imagine a superhero version of Indiana Jones, and you have the idea.

Most Potential: We've only seen two issues of "Gotham Central" (DC Comics) so far, but this looks like it will be the sleeper hit of 2003.

Writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker shift the focus away from Batman and to the cops who must deal with Gotham City's bizarre criminals at the street level.

Best Ongoing Series: Rucka's creator-owned spy series, "Queen and Country" (Oni), hit its stride this year, with its heroine, Tara Chase, foiling a poison-gas attack on the World Cup.

I don't pretend to know how realistic "Queen and Country" actually is, but Rucka does an excellent job of keeping his British secret agent grounded. She isn't just a female James Bond, and Rucka ably depicts the gray morality of her profession.

Biggest Disappointment: Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" (DC Comics) started strong but collapsed with its third and final issue. If there was a point to this exercise, beyond a big payday for Miller, I missed it.

Most Overrated: "The Ultimates" is one of Marvel Comics' top sellers, but who really needs writer Mark Millar's pointless shocks and vile recreations of classic characters? Not I. Brian Hitch's art is nice, but it can't compensate for the nastiness Millar wants to inflict on us.

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