This week we’re going to take a quick look back at some of the highlights of 2010 in the world of comic books and graphic novels.

Ongoing Superhero Book Of The Year: Incorruptible

This second title set in the same universe as his previous book “Irredeemable,” Mark Waid’s newer creation tells the flip side of the story. In “Irredeemable” (a cool comic pick here) Waid relates the story of what happens when the most beloved good guy superhero in the world goes nuts and starts killing millions of people indiscriminately.

“Incorruptible” shows what happens when one of the worst bad guys in the universe, faced with a world terrorized by a madman, becomes a crusader for the forces of good. Max Damage, the most infamous super-powered villain of that same world where “Irredeemable” is set, has a change of purpose. Accompanied by his female, teen aged sidekick, “Jailbait,” Damage sets out to on the path of truth and righteousness. Since his power is that he becomes stronger and more invulnerable the longer he’s awake, he now has to balance his desire to do good with the mental strain of sleep deprivation.

The latest year of “Incorruptible” has veered into political commentary and has delved into the personal relationships that get shaken up when the baddest bad guy in the world suddenly becomes a good guy.

Cult Reprint/Revival Of The Year: Starstruck

One of the greatest lost classics of the 1980s returned in full force this year as Elanie Lee and Michael Kaluta’s “Starstruck” was reprinted as a thirteen-issue miniseries by IDW,, and also saw the release of an Audiocomic that recreated the original stage play on which the comic book was based.

This title, created by Elaine Lee, with gorgeous artwork by Mike Kaluta, started life as an off-Broadway stage play in 1980, written by Lee with Norfleet Lee and Dale Place. The play featured designs by Kaluta, and was staged again in 1983.

Lee and Kaluta first adapted it into comic form in 1982 for Heavy Metal.

This is where the rather convoluted publishing history of Starstruck begins. That series was reprinted in 1984 by Epic comics, who then followed it up with a six-issue mini-series. Lee and Kaluta would later re-print this work in a series with added material, as “Starstruck: The Expanding Universe,” published by Dark Horse Comics in 4 issues marked as “Volume 1″. At the time Dark Horse had planned to add 8 more issues  consisting of 320 pages of new material with older material, unfortunately those plans fell through.

A related series of stories starring the “Galactic Girl Guides” appeared as back-up strips in Dave Steven’s “The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine” from Comico Comics in the late 1980s.

Starstruck is set in a bizarre alternative future. Billed as a space opera, Starstruck follows the offspring of two powerful houses as they vie for wealth and dominance in a universe that is newly freed from the Incorporated Elysian Republic. Populated by characters such as Baron Bajar and his son Kalif and daughter Lucrezia, the story recalls Shakespeare, if he’d collaborated with Douglas Adams.

Lee’s complex story makes for a very rewarding comic-reading experience. The visuals are beautiful, thanks to Kaluta’s art, but Lee’s story provides more than simple eye candy. There are strong female characters, exotic settings and lots of alien landscapes on which to play.

Lee and Kaluta’s Starstruck is a singular comic book experience. It’s taken almost thirty years to present it in a form that it deserves, but it’s worth the wait. This is good stuff.

Starstruck has also made a leap back to its roots, and a bit to the side, with the Audiocomic version of this sexy space opera. Adapting a comic book to an audio play format has been done before–think of the classic Supeman radio show, among others–but lately it’s become a bit of a last art.  Starstruck, with its theatrical origins and strong dialogue is particularly well-suited to this sort of adaptation.

Adapted by Elaine Lee (from the play she wrote with Susan Norlfeet and Dale Place) and directed and sound designed by William Dufris, Starstruck The Audiocomic is a real treat.  It’s pure ear candy that flies by so quickly that you can’t believe it’s over two hours long.

The Starstruck Audiocomic is considerably more evolved than a traditional radio drama. At times I was reminded of the radio incarnation of “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” and at other times the frenetic pace and dense action reminded me of The Firesign Theater. Jokes fly by so fast that repeated listenings will be warranted.

Starstruck The Audiocomic is available direectly from The Audiocomics Website, and will soon be availalbe from CD Baby, iTunes, The Spoken Network, Amazon MP3, Zune, Media,net, Rhapsody, and a bunch of other places.  You can snag the MP3 downloads, or spring for the 2 CD set, with a snazzy cover (seen above) by Michael Kaluta.

Campy Fun Comic Of The Year: Teenage Dope Slaves

“Teen-aged Dope Slaves and Reform School Girls” is a fun collection of preachy exploitation morality comics, restored and collected by Greg Theakston’s Pure Imagination Publishing. The stories were originally published in the 1940s and 1950s.  Greg has just reissued this collection, which was first published over twenty years ago by Eclipse Comics.

These stories are all in the “Reefer Madness” cautionary-tale mode. Foolish teens or young women get involved in drugs or crime, and pay the price. Included in this collection is work by the legendary team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Captain America and many others) as well as work by Louis Zansky and Frank Edgington.

luckyThe standout story the epic, “Lucky Fights It Through,” drawn by Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Mad Magazine. It’s bizarre enough that, way back in the 40s, Kurtzman drew a story about a cowboy with Syphillis, but the strangeness ante is upped considerably when you discover that this story incorporates a hit song of the day, “That Ignorant, Ignorant Cowboy.”

This collection is lurid scare tactics at their funniest. You can order this book from your local bookseller, using the ISBN number ( 978-1-56685-059-9) or order it from Amazon.

Mainstream Reprint Of The Year: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

“Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” Facsimile Edition

Back when the book was announced in the late 1970s, it was widely mocked. The idea of the fictional Superman taking on the real-life “Greatest,” Ali seemed ridiculous. In lesser hands, it might have simply been a silly cross-over comic, a pointless sports tie-in.

However, this book was not left to lesser hands. The superstar team of writer, Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams had set the comic book industry on fire in the early 1970s with legendary runs on Batman (where they created Ra’s Al Ghul, and told the story that was largely adapted into “Batman Begins”) and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The latter title brought relevant social issues into the comic book world in a way that even exceeded what Stan Lee had done at Marvel Comics.

Adams adapted O’Neil’s original plot for the comic book, and provided some of the most impressive artwork of his long career. Aided by inkers Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, Adams obviously poured his heart and soul into this book.

The premise of the story is pretty straight-forward. Clark Kent is doing a story on Ali when an alien invasion begins. The aliens want the greatest warrior on Earth to face their champion, with the fate of the world in the balance. Ali manages to defeat Superman in the ring, and goes on to face the alien champion Hun Ya (who looks a bit like Joe Frazier). Meanwhile, Superman takes action to thwart the alien menace.

Like I said, in lesser hands this could have been cheesy as hell. But with a master artist bringing this story to life, it’s a classic. Last week I was trading Facebook comments with Neal Adams, and he addressed the naysayers who thought the concept of Superman fighting Muhammad Ali was silly, “Super Hero comics are a reflection of life on a god-like scale and bringing Ali onto that canvas made a MASSIVE point that I agree with. Ali is a hero of the 20th century second to none. Against the war,sacrificing his freedom and championship, and representing for every non-white in the world.”

This is one of the most-beautifully drawn comics books of all time. The cover is legendary, depicting an audience filled with celebrities (Frank Sinatra is seated next to then-DC Publisher Jeanette Kahn, in front of Cher and Andy Warhol, and a few seats down from Kurt Vonnegut. Raquel Welch is seated a few rows in front of Gerald and Betty Ford and Plastic Man). The story is a fun plea for unity with enough intrigue and action to keep it from being preachy.

Even though I still have my copy of the original comic from 1978, it’s nice to have it in hardcover form with bright white paper. My only complaint is that the facsimile edition, which is printed in the same double-size as the original, lacks the bonus background material included in the standard-comic book-sized “Deluxe Edition.” It’d be cool to have it all in one package.

The “So Bad It’s Good” Award for 2010: “Showcase Presents Dial ‘H’ For Hero”

“Dial ‘H’ For H.E.R.O.” was one of the goofier concepts springing out of the mid-1960s super-hero craze that was sparked by the campy Batman TV show. Writen by comics veteran Dave Wood and mostly drawn by Jim Mooney, an overlooked talent who worked on everything from Supergirl to Spider-man, this comic book followed the adventures of Robby Reed, a young science nerd who finds a dial hidden in a cave.  He deciphers the writing on the dail and somehow deduces that he can dial the letters “H-E-R-O” and turn into a random superhero.

It was a cheesy gimmick. Basically it allowed DC Comics to take its “House Of Mystery” title and turn it into a book with three colorful superheros on the cover every issue. The charm in this series is in the way that the writer just absolutely phoned in his stories in the most half-assed manner possible. Mooney would deliver solid artwork, but the stories were so formulaic and most of the super heroes were so lame that it seems like a brilliant parody.

The stories go like this: A menace appears; Robby Reed utters his catch-phrase, “Sockamagee” (no, really!); he rushes to his science lab/shed to retrieve the dial and becomes the first of the three heros he will become in the story; he changes back in time for dinner with his granpa: he defeats the bad guy on the third try.

The heroes that Robby Reed turns into are so moronic that the writer, Wood, obviously couldn’t have given less of a crap about what he was writing. We get winners like King Kandy, who has candy-based powers, Mighty Moppet, a super-powered baby in a diaper and cape who shoots people with his bottles and The Yankee Doodle Kid, a patriotic super hero with powers based on fireworks.

Seriously, fireworks. Not even good fireworks, either. “The critter’s making a second charge at me. Maybe my SPARKLER MISSLES will dazzle him…”

The way he turns into the heroes is priceless. He dials in H-E-R-O and in the next panel he’s the hero, with his name and powers coming to him, “I’m The Velocity Kid, master of speed. Sockamagee!”

With phoned-in scripts and contrived characters designed to cash-in on the superhero craze, why are these stories so much fun? They have the charm of the kind of tale an alcoholic parent would make up as a bedtime story. They are so bad that they’re good. You have to wonder if Dave Wood was related to Ed Wood.

There’s also the nostalgia factor. I grew up reading these things.

Anyway, DC Comics has collected the 1966-68 run of these stories in an affordable “Showcase” edition.  It’s under ten bucks for about 280 pages of goofy, campy superhero antics, printed on cheap newsprint in glorious black-and-white.

Ongoing Series Of The Year: Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex is a revival of a Western title that DC Comics first published almost forty years ago. The creation of John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Jonah Hex told the story of a disfigured ex-Confederate gunslinger anti-hero, clearly inspired by the classic Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. The Josh Brolin movie adaptation bombed earlier this year, but many longtime fans of Jonah Hex like to think of “The Outlaw Josie Wales” as a sort of unofficial adaptation of the comic book.

The classic comic really took off after Michael Fleisher started writing the series. Fleisher brought a unusual flare to the series, and wrote one legendary story that flashed forward to show Hex as an old man, being gunned down by a punk kid, then having his body stuffed and put on tour with a “Wild West Show.”

DC Comics canceled the book in the mid-1980s (briefly sending him to the future in a series best left forgotten), and the book was dormant until a couple of Vertigo revivals (by former Dunbar resident Tim Truman). In 2005, DC began a new monthly Jonah Hex series written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, who collaborate with a rotating roster of top-artists like Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet and Billy Tucci. The book is one of the best-written mainstream comics being published today. There are several collections, and an all-new graphic novel was released over the summer that brought the original artist who desinged the character, Tony DeZuniga, back for an extended-length story that was like a beautiful little spaghetti Western.

If you want to break free of the super-hero ghetto, check out Jonah Hex. It’s the most solid comic book on the stands today, with masterful story-telling in every issue.

Cool Comics returns with new entries next week.