My Top Comics of 2016

December 29, 2016

 

saga_vol5-1

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.

wonwom

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.

straybullets-21_cvr

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.

nailbiter_19-1

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.

archiefcbd2016-web

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.

papergirls_vol01-1

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.

BITCH PLANET LOGO 1

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.

mbird

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.

vision

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.

southern-baz

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.

 

10) King: A Comics Biography- Ho Che Anderson

Ho Che Anderson’s massive “King” compiles the three Fantagraphic novels he wrote and illustrated over the course of nearly twenty years (partly due to his own struggles with addiction as noted in the commentary essay in this volume, one of a slew of extras). The art is amazing–wholly original and stark, shifting and versatile. This was an attempt at portraying King as a real human amidst a particularly volatile struggle and historical setting. As such, Anderson doesn’t try to display just King the icon or giant–though at attempting to deconstruct him and display all of his flawed humanity, he displays some of that greatness even better. Along the way readers get to see balanced and complex portrayals of JFK and other key figures from the era and the struggle of the civil rights movement. A dense work that adds something new to the already wide variety of biographies on this leading American figure, but one that manages to utilize the comics medium to do things otherwise impossible. The multi-angle “commentary” on King by figures around him praising or lamenting him can get brutal, especially when detailing the rants of “average” racists of the time. “King” is worthy of reading even by non-comics fans. The only thing keeping this tome from ranking higher on the list is that it is very dense and there are moments when you get bogged down in the depth of a particular page.

9) Stuck Rubber Baby – Howard Cruse

This is another black-and-white graphic novel set in the south during the civil rights movement and based on fact, in this case a comic autobiography of someone coming out of the closet during that volatile period. “Stuck Rubber Baby” is gorgeously illustrated by the writer, each page has an incredibly detailed and warm feel, and it’s easy to see what caused the author to work on it for so long. It is also very interesting to see how closely intertwined the struggle facing gays and blacks was (and arguably is), and in this particular example the two struggles overlapped to a great deal in large part because these friends often fell in both categories and the struggle for rights under the threat of violence took its toll on both communities. This graphic novel was originally published 15 years ago but was out of print when Vertigo got the publishing rights and released this excellent new edition.

8 ) Fantastic 4

Fantastic 4 was Marvel’s best book and one of the funnest superhero monthlies (and certainly of Marvel’s) in 2010 under the formidable talent of writer Jonathan Hickman. Unfortunately the current arc is leading up to a “death” of one of the four key characters; I’m sure Hickman will tell this chapter in an entertaining way but I’m equally sure that in a year at most that same character will be back–there have been enough of these hyped up “deaths” this year (and many other years), so Hickman is doing himself a disservice to sink to such a ploy, but I’m reading along anyway (and the same thing for DC’s Batman this year under Grant Morrison turned out to be a lot of fun if only for giving us this new “Batman Inc” and allowing other characters to shine for awhile).  The single issue in which Ben Grimm gains the ability to be transformed into his old self sans the rocky exterior for a night on the town with Johnny Storm culminating with a surprise visit to his long-time girlfriend is perhaps the second best single (“floppy”) issue of the year (for the best, see later in this list). That issue was a sort of interlude and the main arc consisting of many superb sub-arcs was almost equally entertaining, from the multiple-universe battles between different Reed Richards’s to Sue Storm’s liaison to Atlantis, the Foundation for the Future group and the adopted child geniuses, the intergalactic and inter-dimensional family adventures, the teamwork with Victor Von Doom, and the reappearance of the Silver Surfer acting as herald for Galactus, this book delivered classic Marvel thrills for the 21st century in a traditional yet fresh way…all at the old 2.99 price point, one of the last titles Marvel hasn’t yet sold out on its fan base to sell.

7) Echo – Terry Moore

Terry Moore continued to deliver his independently published title with about 8 more issues making a 2010 appearance as the end of this title fast approaches…each issue might be a bit short at 20 pages a piece, but each page is filled with his wonderful dialogue and excellent pencils. I love each issue, from the cryptic historical quote and pace-setting snapshot opening to each cliff-hanger ending. Moore gives us a realistic, terrifying, all-too-plausible scientific horror story and ended the year with an unlikely tie-in to his long running completed masterpiece “Strangers in Paradise.” I like most who caught that am unsure how he plans to tie these very different pieces of comic landscape together, but I trust he won’t let us down after this great ride thus far. Let’s just hope Julie and her pals make it out alive, she’s been a charming heroine throughout.

6) Wednesday Comics

Rather than paste a picture of the cover, I couldn’t resist showing off some of the excellent art by Amanda Connor who fuses vivacious with humorous and cartoon so deftly as she does in her “Supergirl” strip here. This was the best coffee-table book of the year but much more than just that! It’s huge, measuring at 18 by ll.5 inches. The size makes it nearly impossible to fit it on any book shelf, but it shows off the artwork fantastically–those diverse, creative, colorful pencil and ink or paint drawings. The concept was to take the “Sunday Funnies” and do a “Wednesday Comics” version–ship a newspaper of 15 stories each week in serial form, which DC did last year for 12 weeks using some of the biggest names in comics. This year that successful experiment got the deluxe hardcover collection to display those strips in a new and collected way, trading up the newsprint for high quality paper but keeping the size. Most of the writing is pretty good, especially considering the way these writers had to restrict their length to fit each installment on a single over-sized page. “100 Bullets” partners Brian Azarello and Eduardo Risso give us a solid “Batman” story,  Amanda Connor is always a blast on female superhero stories as well as perfectly matched with Jimmy Palmiotti as a writer, and her “Supergirl” strip is a hoot. Neil Gaiman gives Metallo a shot and delivers some artistic quirkiness,  Lee Bermejo draws some jaw-dropping “Superman” sequences, Paul Pope gives us a fantastic “Adam Strange” story, and everyone else does nice work as well.

5) Chew

“Chew” continued to be a blast, even better this year than last. Each panel is loaded with gags and Easter-eggs, each joke works, and each issue holds up to repeat reads. The characters are fantastic, the situations absurd. Even amidst the absurdity and jokes, all of which are illustrated in a laugh-out-loud comical manner, the action and suspense still manages to excite. Who would imagine that a story focusing on FDA agents policing a US in which poultry is outlawed in the wake of a bird flu would be so much fun (and so oddly believable)? Add to that a government conspiracy, a handful of people with different “food-based” special abilities, “vampires,” aliens, cyborg-cops, dysfunctional families, and poultry-pushing crime syndicates and you have the best and most absurd slapstick comic in years.

4) Justice League Generation Lost

DC has managed to keep their big flagship super-team book (JLA) pretty much unreadable for too many years to count, but thanks to “Brightest Day,” we got this book sharing a bit of that title but with none of the big names–bringing back Keith Giffen’s international version of the team, the “B-list” heroes, “Generation Lost” manages to display those supposed second-tier characters in a fun, captivating, and cool way. This was the most fun super-heroes were in 2010; this book had it all–big fight scenes, funny jokes, mystery, suspense, cliff-hangers, time travel to apocalyptic possible futures, retconned origins that were better than the original versions, group chemistry, treacherous villains, and pretty much anything else a comic fan might want from such a book. A great bi-weekly series that seemed to up the ante with each issue and was actually better than the actual “event” that ushered it in.

3) Demo vol 2

Everyone praised “Daytripper” as Vertigo’s best and most heartfelt mini- of the year, but I vote for “Demo volume 2.” Sure, that other mini- had “big” issues of life and death at its forefront, its art was beautiful and it had more than its share of tear-jerk moments, but “Demo” gave us casual moments of life and death too,beauty in unexpected places, and “powers” that don’t seem so magical. Brian Wood is a terrific writer whether up close and personal in this and “Local,” or bigger than life in “Northlanders” and “DMZ.”  Each “Demo” stand-alone installment was packed with importance even in sparse panels and Becky Cloonan’s black and white pencils were gorgeous. The “Volume One Love Story” was the best of the lot and the year’s most unlikely yet fulfilling romance, perhaps seconded by another Demo, “Stranded” (after the tragedy ended anyway). “Pangs” was downright horrific, “The Waking Life of Angels” is a bit in the vein of this year’s “Black Swan” film as far as claustrophobic psychologically scary goes; “Sad and Beautiful World” was just devastating. These were emotional tales that merged the line between romance and tragedy, comedy and horror, all under the guise of supposed “gifts” that ordinary folks find themselves with–“Demo” is a cynical look at what “superpowers” would be apt to be like in the real world.

2) Brave and the Bold #33

J. Michael Stracynzski really dropped the ball on “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” this year and gave a whole new generation of fans reason to hate his work, but he was on his A-game for this excellent one-shot story in “Brave and the Bold” which featured a missing tale from Batgirl’ s history (turning out in the surprise ending to be her last possible chronological story before she became Oracle). It was 2010’s best single “floppy” issue. The story follows as Zatanna gets a premonition that something bad is around the corner and arranges a girls night out with Wonder Woman and Batgirl. The girls tear through bars and sing karaoke, then sober up over coffee and conversation just before dawn in a diner and on the final page we find out this is directly before the events of “Killing Joke” as Barbara Gordon arrives home. This was a perfect book for DC fans, giving us a missing piece of history that felt unforced and natural and in doing so, JMS topped off a fun (and stunningly illustrated by Cliff Chiang) one-off with a heartbreaking final twist that lands this tale solidly in DC history.

1) Unknown Soldier

Joshua Dysart and Albert Ponticello’s jaw-dropping, emotionally devastating, and pitch-perfect 25 issue run on Vertigo’s “Unknown Soldier” came to a close this year; they had gotten notice in plenty of time that 25 issues would be the end of their run regardless of how many they had planned to try for, so Dysart was able to plot the story so that nothing was left unanswered and it could come to a natural close. He does so perfectly and as a reader I wasn’t left feeling cheated (as I was a bit with “Young Liars” and to an extent “Vinyl Underground” which faced this same problem), though I would have proffered an additional 25 issues. The ones we got in 2010 were phenomenal and this rounded off a work of art that was not only the best comic of 2010 but one of the best and most important pop culture products of the past few years–these 25 issues are crying out for a massive hardcover Omnibus complete with Dysart’s essays and historical recounts, hopefully withsome unpublished extras–plot lines, sketches, research pieces, etc.  DC’s classic “Unknown Soldier” was pretty much a pulp romp featuring a WWII soldier with a bandaged face, but what we get in the 2000s version is a pacifist turned violent force of a man etching out revenge and survival in Uganda. Each part of the story dealt with harsh realities yet occasionally with hidden beauty and life.Each character was vibrant and real, each facet of culture exhaustively researched and authentically portrayed. This book ratcheted from horror to romance to political commentary and gave readers characters, settings, and situations rarely found in any American media. This book held a microscope up to issues ignored by the mainstream media as the protagonist strove to put an end to Joseph Cony’s child-soldier-training reign of terror; this book dealt with difficult ideological debate as it examined the pull of pacifism and its seeming impossibility in the face of abject horror. This was a tough, thoughtful, unflinching, terrifying, despairing, inspiring, hopeful, tragic, bloody, violent, caring, hard-working, faithful, beautiful, real story that deserves to be read but is often emotionally difficult to do so. In the process Dysart gave us a twist we didn’t see coming, a tie to that older DC staple, and a fulfilling, logical, yet expected disheartening ending.