The Best Of 2003 1.28.04: Best Writer

411’s celebration of the Best of 2003, as voted on by our staffers, continues with our salute to the Best Writers of 2003.

Comics have always been set apart from all other forms of art and literature as it is one of the few forms of expression that combines text and pictures on the page. The sort of perfect synergy between the two rarely found creates work that seems as alive and moving as any movie or television program.

For the lion’s share of the industry’s history, artists have always garnered much of the attention. While good writing makes or break a book, especially in the 90s, artists were recognized as the “superstars” and an artist coming onto a down-on-its-luck book usually signaled a change for the better (Todd McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man, Rob Liefield on New Mutants, even John Byrne and George Perez, primarily artists, being handed the reigns to Superman and Wonder Woman respectively post-Crisis). The transition from artist to writer has always been easier than the reverse because of the tremendous name value artists enjoy.

In the past couple years, the focus has shifted unexpectedly from art to story…and as a result, the industry is the best it’s been in years.

Witty dialogue, clever sub-plots, and intriguing mysteries have become what the comic fan looks for in their perfect comic. Writers have become the superstars, and now fans look forward to and companies look to their most talented scribes to rejuvenate floundering properties. The ten writers on this list embody why writing has taken center stage in the comics world.

As always, thanks to ComiX-Fan for use of the top ten format they originated.

We start off with what is at the heart of every comic book: the characters. They are our eyes and ears to the world of the story, the men and women (and other) that we grow to love and hate, cry and laugh with; the best characters become as real to us as any other important people in our lives. These were the ten characters we felt entered our hearts in 2003…

#10: Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Runaways, Mystique)

What if you were the last man on earth?
What if you discovered your parents are *truly* evil?
What if James Bond had blue skin and boobs?
Your name is Brian K. Vaughan, and you are… ‘the Shocker’. Month in, month out you take these concepts and work them into enjoyable stories, while still somehow managing to end every single issue in a nail-biting cliff-hanger.
In Y the Last Man, you successfully top your exceptional performance of last year, throwing Yorick, the last man on earth from the frying pan (confronting his fanatic Amazon sister, in a village populated by female ex-cons) to the fire (trying to dodge Israeli soldiers, while trying to secure the landing of the two last men in space. Then of course there’s the monkey and its stage play. The first trade showing up in 2003’s top 10 sales list isn’t shabby either.
In Runaways, you take every teenager’s sneakiest suspicion and make it reality, as six kids discover their parents are evil super-villains, and decide to make it on their own. They have super-powers after all, each member tracing back to a different superhero genre (aliens and mutants, time-travelers and mystics, scientists and…?), so they’re gonna make it if they can. Unless the traitor in their midst, or those murdering ‘rents of theirs have their way.
Finally, in Mystique, you had Xavier employ the sexiest –slash- deadliest villainess in X-comics as his secret agent. She travels to Cuba to put an end to their Sentinel program, and then all the way to Johannesburg to retrieve a mutated strand of smallpox that kills everyone vaccinated against the original disease. All the while she uses her morphing powers in exciting new ways an makes amusing jokes about her 6-inch tall field-handler’s short-comings.
Your best moment this year, Brian? Agent 355 talking with the last man on earth, while he’s lighting his cigar with his ‘Fuck Communism’, Preacher-tribute, Zippo:
“They can say ‘f*ck’ in comic-books? Jeez, they never said stuff like that in Superman”
“Superman’s just make-believe, 355. In the real world… I’m the strongest man on earth.”
By Manolis Vamvounis, writer of Leave Your Spandex at the Door

#9: Bill Willingham (Fables)

Willingham is a creator on the rise. The smash success of the wonderful Fables has lead to two collections of his previous work, Proposition Player and Sandman: Tall Tales. Also, with a monthly superhero gig on Robin now underway, all comic fans should be sure to look out for Bill Willingham. His razor-sharp wit and bizarre and original ideas make him one of the freshest voices in mainstream comics.
By Kevin Rapp, 411 reviewer

#8: Mark Waid (Fantastic Four, Empire, Superman: Birthright)

Remember the olden days of yore when “Because YOU Demanded It?” would grace the top of a comic book? I propose that we bring the old slogan out of retirement and plaster it atop every issue of Fantastic Four from now until Mark Waid’s inevitable (but hopefully a long time in coming) triumphant departure from that worthy title. After all the hoopla over Waid’s sudden firing and equally sudden rehiring after months of criticism from fans and pros alike, the man who made the Fantastic Four “hot” again certainly deserves the accolade of being where he is “because WE demanded it”. Add in his completion of the wonderful Empire series this year, and we have a writer who is certainly worthy of the title “Best of the Year”.
By Matt Morrison, writer of Looking To The Stars, 411 reviewer

#7: Tony Bedard (Negation, Route 666, Mystic)

Tony kept himself busy in 2003. First, you’ve got Route 666. It seemed like the horror part wasn’t being played up as much when the year started. Apparently realizing this, Tony turned up that aspect this year, making Route 666 one of the more disturbing (but in a good way!) books around. Then here was Mystic. Tony turned the title around, going from a decent but un-noteworthy book to one of the best books in the industry. One of the best books in the industry seems to describe every Tony Bedard title, but none encompass this more than Negation. Considered a fan favorite by nearly all who read it, Negation was among the very best books this year, giving us non stop action and tons of twists each and every week.
2004 marks the launch of Tony’s newest book, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Also, he’ll be working on an unnamed project for Marvel. Many of you may not have heard much about Tony Bedard, but rest assured, you’re going to be hearing a lot about him very soon.
By Kyle Litke, writer of CrossGen News & Views, 411 reviewer

#6: Kurt Busiek (JLA/Avengers, Arrowsmith, Astro City, Power Company)

Few writers have the deep knowledge of comic history and the ability to bring it all together into a coherent story like Busiek can. For JLA/ Avengers alone, Busiek would deserve to be on here. But that’s all for Busiek last year, he also worked on great series like Power Company and Astro City: Local Heroes. Plus, he managed to shoot out a few issues of Arrowsmith and Conan issue 0, both of which were very well received by fans and critics alike.
By Mike Maillaro,411 reviewer

#5: Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil, Alias, Powers, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Six)

This past year, it was easier to tick off the title that Bendis did not write for Marvel (those being the titles written by Millar or Austen) that those he did write. Well, perhaps not, but it certainly did feel like he was all over the Marvel Universe. He was the master of the imprint, contributing the best selling or most critically acclaimed (or often both) titles to the Ultimate, Max, and Marvel Knights line. He writes at least as many titles, if not more, as his peers and does it all while maintaining a unique voice for each of his characters and distinctive plot choices for each title. Each title’s highlight was inevitably Bendis’s ear for whip smart, accurate, intelligent dialogue that, despite its unnaturalness, always comes across as unforced and fitting.
In Alias, we show the bitter, insecure Jessica Jones face down her demons, literally, in the form of the Purple Man. What’s more, he made the Purple Man a cruel, sadistic, and truly terrifying feel despite his ridiculous name and skin tone. Then, despite critical acclaim for the series, Bendis brought Alias to a close at issue #28 because it made the most sense creatively to launch the newly “reborn” Jones in a new comic that could be tied into the main Marvel Universe, The Pulse.
Following up on Murdock’s unmasking by a tabloid the year prior, Bendis had Daredevil steamroll over the characters that come to define Daredevil for years. Typhoid Mary, Bullseye, and Kingpin were all brutally taken out by Murdock as he continued to lie to the world regarding his real identity. Even Luke Cage’s heart-to-heart talk about Matt’s hypocrisy did little to slow him down and then, finally, with the beaten Kingpin at his feet, DD proclaimed himself the new boss, a sort of anti-Kingpin.
In the Ultimate-verse, Bendis continued to turn in top notch work on Ultimate Spider-Man as he and Bagley celebrated 50 issues with the title. The most interesting storyline saw Peter deal with the release of Kingpin and find a way to reconcile it with his sense of justice. Meanwhile, in mini-series land, Peter was thoroughly trounced by the Sinister Five(?) before being forced into indentured servitude by Osborn and his threats of violence to Aunt May, in essence become the sixth member of the Sinister Six.
Bendis also took the X-Men under his wing in an arc better labeled “Wolverine and his Amazing Friends” that saw Logan once again come up against how little he knows about himself and how dangerous that is for he and the X-Men.
All of this combined with the buzz on books like The Pulse, Secret War, and Ultimate Fantastic Four, earn Bendis a place on our Top Ten List this year. And it is easy to guess that he’ll probably be hanging around next year too.
By Tim Stevens, writer of DC Comics News & Views

#4: Greg Rucka (Gotham Central, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Queen & Country, Batman: Death and the Maidens)

Ah, Greg Rucka. You know, if I had to pick my all time favorite writer, it would be him. Debuting on the independent scene a few years ago with Whiteout from Oni Comics, Rucka followed it up with the sequel called “Melt.” After that, he was contacted by the Batman offices to help write some stories for the massive, year long No Man’s Land story arc. Rucka ended up offering the best scripts and helped pave the way into writing for Detective Comics right up until the end of the Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive storyarc.
Why is he my pick for 2003, though? Because he has become a veritable renaissance man. Before signing an exclusive contract with DC Comics, Rucka had taken the comic book world by storm, writing not only the first 12 issues of the Wolverine relaunch, but also bringing a new light to Wonder Woman, a Batman mini-series called the Death of the Maiden that may be the last Ra’s Al Ghul story ever, and is now taking over Adventures of Superman when the new set of creative teams take over in the next month or two. That’s not including whatever novel he may be working on next, after the follow up of his latest success, A Fistful of Rain, the first novel in his long series of novels that did NOT feature Atticus Kodiak. Plus, he’s still constantly working with Oni to publish the criminally underrated Queen & Country.
To emphasize a point, the man is writing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman at the same time, a feat most writers can only dream of. The name Greg Rucka in the comic industry is one that screams respect to both creators and fans. Rucka’s the one to watch for in 2004, I guarantee it.
By Nick Piers,411 reviewer

#3: Ed Brubaker (Gotham Central, Sleeper, Catwoman, Detective Comics, Point Blank)

2003 was an excellent year for Ed Brubaker. He wrapped up one of the best superhero stories of the year in Catwoman, co-wrote Gotham Central, one of DC’s most (deservedly) acclaimed series, and launched the (pardon the pun) sleeper hit of the year spinning out of an excellent miniseries, Point Blank. Brubaker’s impressive work, along with his clever marketing tactics, force us to place him high on the list of writers. With his penchant for realistic human characters, intelligent storylines, questionable morality, and unique storytelling, Brubaker is one of mainstream comics’ most prized talents. Plus, he arm-wrestles his fans to get the word out on his book. Gotta love it.
By Kevin Rapp, 411 reviewer

#2: Jeph Loeb (Batman, Superman/Batman, Spider-Man: Blue, Hulk: Grey)

Last year, nobody came close to achieving the success Jeph Loeb had on Batman. Month after month, Batman topped the sales charts under Loeb and Lee. And they deserved it, as “Hush” was one of the best Batman arcs in some time. Lots of great appearances by the entire Bat cast, great cliffhangers each month, and an ending that was incredibly shocking.
Loeb has established a well-earned reputation as a writer who is equal parts blockbuster and in-depth characterization. The former he showed in “Hush” as well as in Superman/Batman; he’s able to write the epic stories packed with guest stars and not fail to live up to fans’ hefty expectations. He also doesn’t lose the main character(s) in all the confusion and excitement; he might pull out a lot of other toys to play with, but, to steal a westling cliché, he doesn’t forget who brought him to the dance.
In his series of “color” mini-series for Marvel with longtime collaborator Tim Sale, Loeb has shown an uncanny ability to cut to the core of characters like Daredevil, Spider-Man and The Hulk and examine the things that made them such endearing characters when Stan Lee created them. Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Grey both took beloved periods in the histories of two of comicdom’s most well-known characters, territory you don’t encroach on lightly, and revisited them without being trite or unoriginal.
Between gigs, Loeb also found time to contribute heavily to a little show called Smallville, not letting it forget its comic book roots. When it comes to writing, Jeph Loeb is the total package.
By Ben Morse, writer of The Watchtower, co-Editor-In-Chief of 411Comics & Mike Maillaro,411 reviewer

#1: Geoff Johns (JSA, The Flash, Teen Titans, Avengers, Hawkman, The Possessed)

In this new “era of the writer,” Geoff Johns has become the poster boy for writing superstars. In 2003, he continued to live up to this reputation.
Johns continued making the Justice Society, characters that have now been around for almost 70 years, fresh and relevant in JSA; this year he also did the same for Hawkman in his solo series, not having to do any sort of edgy revamp, he just went back to the core concept of what has always made the character cool: a tough-as-nails warrior who kicks ass then bags the chicks…what is cooler than that? Johns also took Wally West, a character there wasn’t anything wrong with per se, and decided to turn his world around in a way that has jumped The Flash from really good to great. Perhaps the highlight of the year for Johns came with his resurrection of DC’s once proud Teen Titans franchise.
Johns excels at balancing the fun aspects of comics past and infusing them with new life. He’s done the “impossible” more than once, taking properties and characters others have given up on and making them critically and commercially successful again without having to scrap the core concepts. They key to Johns’ success lies in his appreciation of what’s come before but in using to blaze his own paths, not tread down those others have already walked. He also has an amazing grasp of how real people sound from all walks of life; his teenagers in Teen Titans sound as legitimate as his elder statesmen in JSA, his blue collar Wally West as endearing as his cultured archaeologist Carter Hall (well, when Carter isn’t lopping people’s arms off with axes). Beyond that, he listens to the fans; he’s a great presence on his message boards and always takes the time to answer questions. More than once fan suggestions have found their way into Johns’ title; there’s a reason he’s a true fan-favorite.
Who gave the JSA their toughest battles, Wally West the roughest year of his life, and turned Hawkman’s life upside down? Ok it may have looked like the Princes of Darkness, Zoom and Headhunter, respectively, but it was actually Geoff Johns. But besides all that drama he also reformed the Teen Titans (with a new Kid Flash) and returned two annual traditions to comics: the JSA/JLA team ups, and Christmas issues. Plus you add the Marvel and Wildstorm projects, and you my friend have a great year. Writers get no more consistent than Geoff Johns.
By Ben Morse, writer of The Watchtower, co-Editor-In-Chief of 411Comics & Mathan Erhardt, writer of Who’s Who In The DCU