My Top Comics of 2016

December 29, 2016

 

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10) Saga

Okay so one one hand I’ve been tempted to call Saga the most over-rated comic in conversation today but..here I am placing it on my list of best 2016 comics. There were a lot of other worthy titles shipping monthly this year that could have slotted here but ultimately Saga takes the spot because of that wide reach and enthusiastic embrace. It’s comics little ambassador, a book to prove to someone on the fence that comics are a viable and exciting medium today (though be careful because some of those gross out closeups are adults only). Brian K. Vaughn’s best work IMO remains Y the Last Man but Saga may become a close second depending on how it all wraps up.

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9) Wonder Woman

Will DC finally make a good movie post-Nolan? Maybe. Maybe. The previews for Wonder Woman look terrific and after losing her job as a global ambassador IRL (don’t get me started), we at least need a good WW comic. Azarello’s run a couple years ago started great and really played up the mythology but then seemed to derail. No one in recent years has really gotten Princess Diana so DC just went back to one of the last scribes to do so and now we have new Greg Rucka Wonder Woman issues, alternating the latest version of her origin story with a new tale month to month. Of the “trinity” this title is by far the best DC is currently doing though King’s take on Batman is not bad.

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8) Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets was one of indie comics most frustrating (and unintentional) cliffhangers in history. 40 issues or so of masterful storytelling and art self-produced by David Lapham and then…who’s in the trunk? Radio silence for a decade or more. Lapham did a few other things (including the also excellent Young Liars for Vertigo which faced the axe too soon and had a rushed ending) and then finally…Stray Bullets came back! He not only wrapped up that original arc and then released the whole series in a giant omnibus but he launched a series of continued stories featuring our favorite doomed miscreants. Each issue stands on it’s own, hits like a fist to the gut, but also ties together for the overall story.

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7) Nailbiter

Joshua Williamson continued his horror-fan homage with 11 or so more issues of Nailbiter this year. We’re still not sure what all lurks in and behind the town where so many serial killers are born but we may be getting closer. Along with a dozen or more siblings Nailbiter cemented Image Comics as the torchbearers of classic Vertigo storytelling.

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6) Archie

Though I read my fair share of Archie digests as a kid, I would never have thought in a million years past the age of 10 that Archie would be a worthy consideration in any “best of” list. Yet somehow the entire Archie line has managed to not only survive the digital age but thrive and evolve without losing the essence of why they worked in the first place. We got not only the almost adults-only zombie action of Afterlife With Archie and the Lovecraftian horror of Sabrina we also got the primary all-ages in-universe Archie line updated for a new generation in a non-pandering way. Mark Waid knows what makes these simple stories work and every issue this year was a blast to read.

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5) Paper Girls

If you watched Stranger Things and enjoyed it you should really check out Paper Girls as it touches the same spots in the nostalgic brain in different ways. Sci-fi, kids on bikes, a big mystery–what’s not to love? Oh and yeah, this is another BKV title and one that, at least this year, I liked better than Saga.

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4) Bitch Planet

In addition to being a great sci-fi story, an excellent commentary on society. a wholly new way of introducing gender studies and feminism, Bitch Planet is also a masterclass in the monthly comic. With the back-matter pieces, the letter column, and the overall presentation of each issue, Bitch Planet is a cover-to-cover joy every time an issue ships. Much like Orange is the New Black these are characters that once never got a fully-developed narrative arc and eye. Yet, in my opinion, Bitch Planet far out-ranks that Netflix original.

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3) Mockingbird

For a newcomer to the medium, writer Chelsea Cain seems to have an uncanny touch for maximizing the art of panel storytelling. Her bread and butter are thriller novels and Mockingbird, her modern take on Bobbi Morse (much more than Hawkeye’s girlfriend) was her first comics project. And it was awesome. Sadly, gamergate style knuckledraggers harassed the hell out of her on Twitter for things like the above cover and ultimately this project either didn’t sell or whatever because a year in and we’re done folks. But both arcs, especially the first, were awesome (5 issues that can be reread in any order to reveal new layers to a comic caper complete with multiple sight gags and Easter eggs!) Light-hearted and fun yet puzzle-box intricate Mockingbird was what comics are all about.

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2) The Vision

Part American Beauty part Watchmen, this doomed crime and family take on suburbia featuring the Avengers’ Vision and his self-fashioned synthetic family was the most outside of the box take on an established superhero of 2016. Tom King is a writer who comes to the field after leaving a career with the CIA (!) and the medium is lucky to have him. The Vision is his strongest work yet.

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1)  Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron gives us a gritty warts and all Gothic take on life in the south, specifically Alabama. His Alabama may be over the top but as a native who spent his formative years there he gets the uniqueness and love-hate ratio right for a gripping take on homecoming. Southern Bastards is never really the story you think it is and I’m not sure where things will end up though I doubt they end up happy this being a true and through noir and all. Latour’s pencils are original and provide a great aesthetic for this story.

 

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Unwritten

Vertigo consistently makes the smartest, deepest and most diverse comics for adult readers in the mainstream market. Whereas some publishers used the “adult” rating to merely amp the violence and sex, Vertigo allows the freedom such a rating gives them to explore thematic depths, philosophical concepts and ambiguous character traits that more approachable fair shies away from. Of course, using “Scalped” or “Preacher” as an example, the violence and sex isn’t shied away from either when necessary to the story. Yet it’s never the main goal or method in a typical Vertigo work. The problem presented by Vertigo is evident in last month’s cancellation of “Young Liars.” These are not books that fit a wide variety of tastes and preferences. Being funded by a subsection of a mainstream company, in this case DC comics, means that only so much money will be allocated in support of an artistic venture. With creator owned and distributed works like Jeff Smith’s “RASL” or Terry Moore’s “Echo,” low sells and limited appeal is overcome if the author has the time, money and passion to devote to a work that may take years to catch on. DC can always pick another up-and-comer to give a 2 year shot to with Vertigo, or they can move some money back to their main stable and release a new Superman ongoing title.

So, even though there is a tremendous history of smart, great works in Vertigo that got to start, run and come to their natural culmination in the beforehand planned “final issue” like “Sandman,” “Preacher” or “100 Bullets,“ the still ongoing “Hellblazer,” the going-past-originally planned “Fables,” or a host of other books that look like they’re in good shape to end their tale correctly, there are also a lot of books that get the axe before their time. Most recently this is the case with “Vinyl Underground” and “Young Liars.” Both of these titles launched about 2 years ago– “Underground” lasted 12 issues, “Liars” made it to their 16th last month. “Young Liars” is a frustrating example. It was the full work of writer/artist David Lapham, who never got around to wrapping up his creator owned “Stray Bullets” but who looked fired-up to tell this mind-bending, fully involved head-trip adventure through Vertigo in an on-going that never shipped late, often was set on the day it shipped to stores, and always delivered the goods. Axed before its time, we’re left with a hastily thrown together ending that tells us pretty much nothing…we have no idea where this would have really ended up and what detours it would have taken along the way.

So, that said… There are a few very promising works kick-starting this year, all a few issues into the story now. These three books all started around the same time, so the odds on all of them making it to the usual 70 some-odd books it takes to fully wrap a Vertigo tale aren’t tremendous…but if the numbers are decent, they will make it. So as a fan of these, I’m doing my part to get the word out. Buy the monthly…buy the trade too, and, if you like at which point you can sell the “floppies,” but you must buy the monthly if these series’ are going to last. It’s a gamble you take, sure, but you’re certain to be entertained along the way even if the ending never comes. We’re talking about an 8 or 9 dollar a month commitment; dig for some change and take the plunge.

First off, “The Unwritten.” This is a literary fans dream; if you’re a classics dork, check out the entire premise and especially the great detour this past months issue, Issue #5, takes. The basic story follows Tom Taylor, son of a famous author who has died. Taylor is the basis for his fathers best selling books about “Tommy,” a teenage wizard with animal cohorts and adventures. The series is written by Mike Carey and billed as a “literary conspiracy mystery.“ Last month’s issue  # 5 tells an alternate history of Rudyard Kipling and features his encounters with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). There are things that have occurred in the first 5 issues of this book I haven’t seen done since Neil Gaiman ended “The Sandman,” and I don’t mean to imply any overt similarities other than artistic ambition and non-pandering to popular taste.

Next, “The Unknown Solider.” A fully researched and prepared book by a former self-proclaimed pacifist struggling with the concept of war and “just” violence in the pursuit of peace. It’s set in Uganda and is complete with child soldiers, corrupt governments, agencies with misplaced priorities, humanitarian fervor and real, vivid- yet- dark, life.

“Sweet Tooth,” a post-apocalyptic story of a half-human/half-deer teen in the company of a hunter on the way to the promised land. Bizarre and although entrenched in an overly-used archetype of a setting, wholly invigorating and unconventional enough to make that setting new again.

Okay. I’ve pitched them and if you’ve ever been a fan of comics or graphic novels, pick them up. Support them, lets see them through to their natural conclusion.  Don’t forget “Scalped,” either— Vertigo’s best series which seems to be going strong, winning awards and in no danger of cancellation. It’s modern noir at its finest and hopefully one of the above three titles live up to it in time.