My Top 20 Comics of 2017

It’s been a strong year for comics!  DC has continued to kill it with its Rebirth line and more, with their Batman books in particular kicking ass across the board.  Marvel were off my radar for a bit, save for the occasional standout like the excellent Kingpin miniseries, but have made a big-time comeback late in the year with a flurry of quality titles in their Marvel Legacy lineup, which if they keep up could be serious contenders in next year’s rankings.  As usual, Image has maintained a balance of continuing standout ongoing titles and launching exciting new books, though I was sad that previous list-topper Southern Bastards was so sporadic in its release schedule this year (albeit for good reason) that I ended up having to drop it from my rankings… hopefully it’ll return to prominence in 2018.  But other indie companies had impressive years for me, too, with Aftershock and Vault Comics launching some impressive debuts worth keeping an eye on, like Monstro Mechanica and Maxwell’s Demons, respectively, and Black Mask and BOOM! Studios putting out a wealth of titles that became contenders in this year’s rankings.  There were enough notable releases that it wasn’t too hard expanding my usual Top 10 to a Top 20…

20. BLACK HAMMER
19. AQUAMAN
18. ROYAL CITY
17. DOOM PATROL
16. PUNISHER: THE PLATOON
15. BATMAN / THE SHADOW
14. THE DREGS
13. BEAUTIFUL CANVAS
12. DOCTOR STRANGE
11. THANOS

And here is my top 10 for 2017!

10. SHORT ORDER CROOKS

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This one was a late entrant, largely due to the fact that, rather than coming from a publisher, it came from Kickstarter.  I’m really bad at keeping up with reading the comics I back on Kickstarter, especially when they’re digital pledges, so despite reading and enjoying the first issue ages back, I didn’t get round to catching up on issues 2-4 until recently.  And I’m glad I did.  Christopher Sebela has put out some quality work this year (I belatedly caught up on the first volume of HeartThrob, which was so great I wish I could retroactively insert it into my 2016 list), but this may be his best.  It’s a tale of heists and turf wars in the wild world of food trucks which truly centres on a passion for cooking which can really be read as a passion for comics or any creative endeavour.  George Kambadais was a breakout artist for me this year (small press oneshot Swift very nearly made it onto this list too), and colorist Lesley Atlansky brings out the best in his work.  Letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou rounds out an all-star team on top form.  It makes me sad that every publisher apparently turned this project down, as it’s just the kind of book we should be seeing more of, but I’m happy the team got it out there in some format.

9. DETECTIVE COMICS

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When DC Rebirth started, this book got lost in the shuffle for me.  I mistakenly assumed that I was already getting my fill of Batman titles and didn’t need another one.  But when the buzzing word of mouth finally did make me jump onboard, I was so glad I did.  James Tynion IV and a variety of gifted artists have, with this series, put together the best team comic on the market.  The plotting is just so well paced, with various subplots meticulously bubbling in the background at any one time, and each member getting their turn in the spotlight where their brewing drama comes to a dramatic head.  Everyone on the team matters and enhances the dynamic of the book.  Among other things, this title has (re)stated the case that Batwoman should really be considered an A-list hero, reminded me that Tim Drake was an amazing character and MY definitive Robin when I first got into comics, and made me give a damn about Clayface.  And Detective Comics also excels in its long-term plotting, with stuff seeded early on now paying off in dividends a year down the line.

8. GODSHAPER

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This had the best lettering of any book I’ve read all year.  It’s not common to lead with lettering in a review, I know, but it was so impressive and gratifying to see Colin, whose work I have long been familiar with, rise to the challenge of guiding our eyes through labyrinthine layouts and showcasing various forms of speech and song.  Of course, the rest of the team are no slouches either.  Si Spurrier has explored around these themes of prejudice and the marginalised being labelled as worthless while being exploited for their usefulness in his other work, but this was his most refined example, feeling like a culmination of the work leading up to it: a world that was frustrating and heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting.  And Jonas Goonface’s vibrant artwork just blasted off the page.

 
7. EAST OF WEST

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An old favourite that has been a perennial on this list for the past few years, it’s become hard to find new ways to express how consistently excellent Jonathan Hickman’s magnum opus is.  Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin continue to be one of the very best art teams in comics, bringing to life a world of epic scope and substantial gravitas.  It’s another book where I find myself thinking a more frequent release schedule might have seen it place even higher, but we got enough installments to maintain its place at around the same level it was last year.  But this ever-reliable workhorse of the Image Comics roster is now approaching its endgame, and next year will likely be its last chance to make an appearance.  So, it’ll be interesting to see if the future classic will go out with a bang!

6. EXTREMITY

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Daniel Warren-Johnson is doing career-defining work on this book.  Anyone who has taken one look at his output up until now was already aware that he is a fantastic artist, his work richly expressive and layered with impeccable craft and skill.  And that mastery of design carries over into Extremity, with evocative world-building and characters so visually arresting that you want to grab a pen and draw them yourself.  But what might surprise people (even if it shouldn’t, he’s shown chops in this discipline before) is just how excellently written it is, too.  Extremity is a powerful parable about the toxicity of revenge narratives and a cutting condemnation on the cyclical destruction of war.  It’s a book that is angry, sad, and ultimately just has a big, open, vulnerable heart.

5. GOD COUNTRY

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Donny Cates has blown up big time.  He’s putting out two of Marvel’s best comics, and seems primed to break out even bigger in 2018, one event comic or banner title away from solidifying himself in the A-list in a manner akin to Scott Snyder in 2011 or Tom King in 2017.  But if you haven’t already, it’s worthwhile going back to read his breakout comic from earlier this year, God Country.  You read this, and you can’t help but think, “Everyone involved in this book deserves comics superstardom.”  Geoff Shaw’s dynamic, epic imagery is balanced with Jason Wordie’s delicate, muted colour palette, which along with Donny Cates’ nuanced storytelling crafts a world that swings between dizzying cosmic adventure and intimate family drama in a manner that brings real emotional heft.

 
4. THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS

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I was late to the party jumping onboard this book.  For whatever reason I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it, and it was in fact meeting colorist Mike Garland at Heroes Con and finding him to be a very nice man that prompted me to finally give it a try.  And I’m so, so glad I did.  It’s richly, skillfully coloured, for one, Garland’s aesthetic an ideal compliment to the detailed, textured visuals of Tomm Coker.  And the story is another magnificent display of world-building from Jonathan Hickman, one of comics’ true masters of the discipline.  The premise of the occult underbelly of the world of global finance has allowed Hickman to weave a rich tapestry of international banking factions and shifting allegiances, and each issue is a dense, meaty read that feels like a substantial experience on its own while also feeding into the tantalising larger mysteries unfolding.  Don’t make the mistake I did by sleeping on this book.

3. 4 KIDS WALK INTO A BANK

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Writer Matt Rosenberg, artist Tyler Boss and letterer Thomas Mauer have crafted something truly special with 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank.  Every page is rich with visual and structural innovation in a manner that you get the feeling this book will be getting talked about for its techniques years from now.  It pushes the envelope in comics craft, but is more than just an exercise in technique. 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank has character at its core, and it wouldn’t be the runaway success it is if it wasn’t for the fact that we like and care so deeply about the 4 eponymous children at the heart of the story.  Each one feels like a kid you might have known at school, or maybe even a kid you were.  Plus, this also manages to be one of the funniest comics I’ve read in ages, thanks to a rich selection of whip-smart lines and dynamite sight gags.

2. MISTER MIRACLE

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The all-star pairing of Tom King and Mitch Gerads, along with letterer Clayton Cowles, produced last year’s #1 entry on my year-end list, Sheriff of Babylon.  And they very nearly repeated the trick with this follow-up, the more high profile assignment of getting to tell a new epic based on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga to mark the King’s 100th Birthday, starring one of his favourite creations, Mister Miracle.  But this is a dark riff on Kirby, drawing on the nightmarish, oppressive dread the Evil Gods seep into the comics page as previously explored by Grant Morrison in the likes of Final Crisis, but injecting it with a melancholy human flavour which is very on-brand for this creative team.  Mister Miracle is many things.  It’s a human drama about the feelings of inescapable despair we can feel in a world that seems broken and wrong, deeply relevant for our times.  It’s a character study of Scott Free, digging into the dark corners of his identity and making the subtextual implications into text, carrying them to their full, grim conclusions.  It’s a horror story, a Lynchian nightmare of an unseen evil spreading its malign influence over every interaction we see unfold.  It’s a mystery, a puzzle box where we can’t trust anyone and can’t be sure of what’s real and what’s imagined.  And it’s a love story, about how even when all else is lost or uncertain, Mister Miracle will always have Big Barda. Have I mentioned before that I love Big Barda?  As Mister Miracle approaches its second half, going into 2018, there is still much about the series that remains unknown, with many narrative cards still being played close to the chest.  But it says it all about the quality of the book that, even when unsure of where it’s going, I want to follow it through to the end no matter what.  Can this team just keep on making these 12-issue maxiseries’ forever, please?

 
1. BATMAN

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Tom King tops the list two-years in a row, this time further cementing his dominance by taking the top two spots on the list!  I think I made the remark a few years ago, when talking about Grant Morrison’s run, I believe, that since Batman is the biggest comic in the American market, it’s nice when it can also be called the best.  And I feel I can say that in 2017.  I very nearly gave the top spot to Mister Miracle, but when thinking back on the year in comics, there is no title I enjoyed more consistently than Tom King’s run on Batman.  Let’s take a look back through Batman in 2017, shall we?  The year began with two-part palette cleanser “Rooftops,” a quiet exploration of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman, featuring pensive artwork from Stephanie Hans, that set the course for the year ahead by shifting the dynamic between Batman and Catwoman and allowing them to be together.  Then came gripping 5-part storyline “I Am Bane,” with a vengeful Bane coming to Gotham and tearing through Batman’s friends and foes alike in search of what Batman had stolen from him.  This was perhaps Bane’s best story since Knightfall, certainly the most formidable and dangerous he’s been since then, and also boasted some of David Finch’s finest work in years.  That was followed by a crossover with The Flash in “The Button,” a significant piece in the larger DC Universe puzzle setting the stage for the currently-unfolding Doomsday Clock, but also a chance for King and artist Jason Fabok to stage a thrilling mismatch showdown between Batman and Professor Zoom.  This was followed by one of my favourite single issues of the year, one I’ve already gushed about in my newsletter: “The Brave and the Mold.”  Regular King collaborator Mitch Gerads stepped in for this oneshot that saw Batman team up with my other fave, Swamp Thing.  After that, David Finch was back in “Every Epilogue is a Prelude,” which made headlines by featuring the pivotal moment where Batman proposes to Catwoman.  All this alone would be a year’s worth of developments in most titles, but Batman truly made the most of that double-shipping schedule, and so this was just the point where things started to get REALLY good!  What followed was “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” an 8-part saga which reads like this run’s best attempt yet to provide an evergreen bookstore market seller, featuring a largely self contained story and a rich selection of Batman’s iconic villains.  Mikel Janin here ascended to comics superstar status with some truly stunning work, while Clay Mann’s fill-in issues helped to build up longstanding joke villain Kite-Man into one of the most poignant, tragically human characters in the DCU.  Most would struggle to follow this arc, but King was right into the swing of things with “The Rules of Engagement,” a two-parter which made me a fan of Joelle Jones, doing beautiful art along with colorist Jordie Bellaire.  We then also got Batman Annual #2, which, far from containing light, throwaway fare you might expect in an annual, saw King and Lee Weeks tell a beautiful, heartbreaking love story chronicling the past, present and (possible) future of Batman and Catwoman.  By this point, my mind was already pretty much settled that this book would take the #1 spot, but then Tom King and a returning Clay Mann (front and centre rather than on fill-in duties, this time) put an exclamation point on the year with the brilliant “Superfriends” two-parter.  The first part features some of the most beautiful sentiments on the Batman/Superman friendship I’ve ever seen, with each explaining to their respective significant other how the other one is a far better hero and human being than they could ever be.  Then the second part, a largely conflict-free extended double date between Clark & Lois and Bruce & Selina, became another candidate for my favourite single issue of the year.  Seeing it all laid out like that, I don’t know how anyone could NOT choose Batman as the best comic of 2017!

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Since I began doing this list, I’ve kept a tally of each year-end winner, and here’s the current list:

  • 2010: Scalped
  • 2011: Scalped
  • 2012: The Underwater Welder
  • 2013: The Manhattan Projects
  • 2014: Southern Bastards
  • 2015: Southern Bastards                                                                                               
  • 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon
  • 2017: Batman

And that’s us wrapped for another year.  I already have a bunch of 2018 comics launches I’m excited about, along with a few late startups from this year I’m eager to see hit their stride.  How will the lineup look next December?  Will there be some surprises?  I guess we’ll see!

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My Top Ten Comics of 2016

Hello!  It’s that time of year again… already!  It’s time for my 7th annual countdown of my favourite comics of the year.  And what a year it’s been.  If we look past the flaming trash fire much of 2016 has been in general, we have got some great comics out of it.  DC has found much success this year with its Rebirth relaunch, and I found myself jumping on a whole bunch of titles.  Though none of those biweekly books made this year’s Top 10, there are some standouts which I’ve been enjoying a great deal: Batman, Detective Comics, Aquaman, Wonder Woman.  On the flipside, I feel like my Marvel reading has almost entirely tapered off.  Most of the Marvel books I was reading, I either dropped or they ended.  I tested out a few of the new launches and relaunches but generally didn’t stick with them… but I’m hopeful about some of the promising creative teams lined up for upcoming books!  Several indie books continued to make a strong impression, though I seem to have jumped on less new Image titles this year than I have in past years, for the most part falling back on titles I was already reading.  However, I’ve heard great things about The Black Monday Murders and intend on catching up on that when the trade hits early next year.  The indie publisher that really jumped out for me this year was Dark Horse.  Negative Space and Harrow County continued to excel, and new creator-owned projects that launched this year also managed to grab my attention.  Between all the books I read from various publishers, I could probably make a top 20 list quite easily if I had the time.  Doom Patrol, Wonder Woman: Earth One, Civil War: Kingpin, Rumble, Chum, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, Black Hammer, A.D.: After Death, as well as the titles mentioned above, all jump into my head as books that came close to making the list.  But I had to narrow it down to 10, and here’s my final list…

  1. KENNEL BLOCK BLUES

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Kennel Block Blues was a book that really took me by surprise this year.  Not with how good it was.  When you put a creative team like Ryan Ferrier and Daniel Bayliss on a comic of course you’re going to get quality.  But I was expecting a fun, quirky “musical” about talking animals in prison.  What I actually got was a harrowing exploration of loneliness and casual cruelty, and a deeply moving ode to unlikely friendships and triumph over adversity.  Few comics this year did such an effective job of making me care about the characters within than I came to care for those singing talking animals featured here.  I was genuinely devastated by the grim ends some characters meet, and this also served to create an oppressive atmosphere of no character being truly safe, which ramped up the tension and made your heart soar for those who were able to emerge in triumph.  I think many might forget to include Kennel Block Blues in their year-end rankings because it landed so early in the year, or perhaps because Ryan Ferrier’s other creator-owned book, D4VE (also fab), seems to be more widely acclaimed.  But if you want an emotional roller-coaster of a read, both funny and moving, Kennel Block Blues is certainly worth your consideration.

  1. CHEW

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Chew is a comic which has appeared on my top 10 lists in previous years, though not for a while.  But I had to include it this year, as the series reached the end of its 60-issue run.  While Chew has had its share of acclaim, part of me feels like it doesn’t get enough love as a crucial book in the ascension of Image.  Maybe I’m letting my own subjective perspective inform things a bit, as it was one of the first non Marvel/DC titles that I jumped onboard and bought monthly, but even beyond that Chew seemed like an early example of the “new Image” ongoing: not a superhero remix or a 90s revival, or a product of the Top Cow imprint, but an unusual, original concept from an exciting upstart creative team, the kind of series you might have expected from Vertigo in years past.  And while Chew is most famous as a comedy series, it had its share of heart-rending emotional gut punches.  And here, in its final year, those gut-punches came thick and fast as the world inched ever closer to its chicken-related apocalypse.  While even I was guilty of letting the book fly under my radar – always reading, but maybe not rushing to grab it first on my read pile – it was once Chew was approaching its end and I had to start saying goodbye to this rich cast of oddball characters that I realised just how fond I had grown of them over the years, and how nuanced and lived-in John Layman and Rob Guillory had made them.  Farewell, Chew, you will be missed!

  1. DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH

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As I mentioned above, DC have been on a real upward swing this year with their Rebirth initiative.  All their titles relaunching, most with fresh creative teams, many of them as biweekly books, it’s been an ambitious undertaking which has proven largely successful.  And DC Universe Rebirth, by Geoff Johns and an array of talented artists, was the oversized oneshot that started it all.  But in reading the comic, which I’ve done several times now, in a lot of ways it reads less like a beginning than an ending.  It’s Geoff Johns’ goodbye to comics.  At the very least, goodbye to actively writing monthly comics, for the time being at least, as he moves up the ladder to focus on overseeing DC’s adaptations in the world of film and television as their Chief Creative Officer.  And in that context, DC Universe Rebirth takes on an added poignant quality of Johns checking in on various characters he’s had a hand in shaping over the years, giving us one last look at where he’s leaving them before giving them a fond farewell.  And the character viewed most fondly of all is Wally West, the protagonist of the run on The Flash where Johns first made his reputation.  Viewed for years as one of the great casualties of the New 52, not just as a popular character in himself but in the DC legacy tradition he  personified, seeing him roam this new world, struggling to find a tether in it feels metatextual.  And when Barry reaches through the fabric of reality and embraces him, sobbing, “How could I ever forget you?”, it’s like they’re grabbing a hold of us, the readers.  It’s a moment that brought me close to tears when I first read.  But beyond nostalgia and resolution, so much for the future is set up here.  Setting up Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen as the DC Universe’s biggest Big Bad was a controversial move, to be sure, and yet the Watchmen are surely the perfect antithesis of the light and hope and classic heroism this issue establishes the DCU as being all about.  A bold mission statement on the DC Universe going forward, and a hugely rewarding, cathartic read in itself.

  1. ALL STAR BATMAN

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I have mentioned already that it has been a stellar year for Batman comics.  Both Batman and Detective Comics are on fire right now, and with each running on an alternate bi-weekly schedule that means we have a quality new Batman comic just about every week.  We even got Dark Night: A True Batman Story, an autobiographical comic from Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso that is set in the real world of Dini’s life story but still manages to totally be about Batman.  But still, Scott Snyder has once again shown himself to be the current king of Batman comics with his new series.  While his long-running art partner Greg Capullo is off working with Mark Millar, Snyder has taken to working with a rotating cast of different artists for this series, with the stated intention of showcasing Batman’s iconic rogues gallery.  In 2016, we got the first of these villain spotlights in the form of a 5-part saga focused on Two-Face, one of my absolute all-time favourite villains.  And it really is a hell of a Two-Face story, Snyder revealing whole new dimensions to the character both in his personal connection to Bruce Wayne and in just how formidable a threat he can be.  That is paired with art from John Romita Jr which is some of the legendary artist’s best in many years, perhaps his best since Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.  The pacing and staging of action here is just breathtaking.  And as bonus content we’ve also been treated to backup stories illustrated by Declan Shalvey.  Each issue is a densely-packed, immensely enjoyable read, top of the pile even at a time when we’re spoiled with top-tier Batman tales.

  1. EAST OF WEST

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I’m sure I’ve said similar things about East of West before that I’m going to say now.  Because the book has been running a few years now, it doesn’t always get its due.  People are always looking ahead to the next Image #1 to start buzzing about.  But though it might not get the acknowledgement it deserves, and it even flies under my radar from time to time, whenever I read the latest issue of East of West, its masterpiece status is reaffirmed in my mind.  While the sprawling ensemble and dizzying scope continue to grow and grow, this apocalyptic sci-fi pseudo-Western has been patiently moving forward, aligning the players on the board for some epic conflicts and bringing long-separated characters together.  As Year Two drew to a close it felt like all the extensive groundwork and world-building is starting to pay off.  Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin do astounding, superstar work on art and colours every issue, and it might just be Jonathan Hickman’s finest work, too.  There might be other comics I rush to read quicker on new comics day, but of all the comics titles currently running, East of West may be the one that, when it’s all said and done, is best primed to join the canon of the all-time comics classics.

  1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

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What!?!?!  After a couple of successive years at the top of the list, Southern Bastards slips off the #1 spot in 2016!  That’s not to say there’s been any decline in quality.  If anything, the issues we’ve had this year have been among the best the series has ever put out, as now Roberta Tubb has finally arrived in Craw County and a reckoning seems set to be underway.  Southern Bastards remains the best comic on the shelves, whenever it comes out.  The problem is more that whenever it comes out isn’t as often as I’d like.  Don’t get me wrong, I know you can’t rush greatness, and I’m willing to wait for issues when what we get when they do arrive is such quality.  But it’s just a simple fact that the more sporadic release schedule allowed for other, more regularly-released titles to slip in and take more prominent standing in my consciousness this particular year.  Still, Southern Bastards remains as gripping as ever, with Jason Aaron and Jason Latour bringing us a masterfully realised, believably wretched world with a bruised, twisted heart pumping under all the ugliness.  It has every chance of climbing back up to #1 in future years.  I can only hope that in 2017 I get a larger dose of Southern Bastards to enjoy.

  1. HOUSE OF PENANCE

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In a year that boasted a fair share of quality horror, House of Penance stood out as a horror not quite like any other.  Eschewing the usual creature feature or body horror fare, or (for the most part) any real exterior menace, this was almost entirely a horror of the interior, its dread built up from am unbearably oppressive sense of “ill feeling.”  While credit must also be given to the astute characterisation of Pete Tomasi in portraying the loneliness, grief and mania of Sarah Winchester as she obsesses over endlessly building her ghost-trap house, it is through the feverish artwork of Ian Bertram that this sense of grinding dread is hammered home.  This is achieved through the blood-soaked tendrils depicted weaving through the house, growing in density as scenes reach emotional high-points.  But beyond that, it is portrayed in near every frame, with the uneasy close-ups on gaunt, wild-eyed faces, pitching everything at just a degree or two shy of hysteria, ready to bubble over at any moment.  It was a superstar showcase for Bertram, elevating him from an artist I was already aware of and a fan of into making him one of my favourite artists working today.  But everyone on the creative team excels, this whole comic is a triumph, and a shining example of how much untapped potential for horror still lies within the comics medium.

  1. THE VISION

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Easily Marvel’s best comic over the past year, and a solid contender for the best ongoing title anyone put out in 2016, The Vision was actually a comic I wasn’t initially interested in, reading the concept.  “The Vision makes a family for himself and goes to live in suburbia?”  Seemed to me like a poor way to capitalise on renewed interest in the android superhero following his Avengers: Age of Ultron appearance.  How wrong I was.  Right from the opening pages of the first issue, a foreboding sense of impending doom is built up to such a fever pitch it’s almost like reading a psychological horror.  Tom King and Gabriel Walta managed to give us a take on  The Vision that felt utterly true to the core spirit of the character while at the same time taking us on shocking, unpredictable new directions.  In an era of short-run volumes and relaunches where story arcs can feel expendable, that format here is used to the book’s advantage, giving us a story which, while set in the wider Marvel Universe and its history for sure, nonetheless feels like an almost self-contained parable of what it is to be human as told from the perspective of those who aren’t, one which will have an enduring life in collected form many years from now, long after the next few crossover events have run their course.  A modern masterpiece.

  1. CLEAN ROOM

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Speaking of masterpieces, it’s a rare joy to get to experience an all-time benchmark work unfolding in real time.  But that’s just the sense I get from Clean Room, a title which in future years and generations I’m sure will be held up as part of the all-time canon of essential comics horror.  It started promisingly enough last year, with a Going Clear style premise of an investigation into a sinister, Scientology-style cult and the spate of deaths surrounding it.  But from there the series took a sharp left turn into blood-curdling cosmic/demonic flesh-mangling horror, a Lovecraft meets Cronenberg assault of wickedness.  It’s Gail Simone at the nastiest she’s ever been, and in the process probably the best she’s been since at least her epic Secret Six run.  Kudos also to Jon Davis-Hunt for crafting some truly nightmarish, viscerally disgusting imagery which left me wary of turning each page in public.  And beyond the scares, over its run of slightly over a year, Clean Room has been building up a rich, enigmatic mythology which it feels we’ve only thus far scratched the surface of, and populated it with both likeable and despicable characters.  I’m sad to see Davis-Hunt depart as artist, but this is a series which could be poised to just get better and better as the plot thickens.

  1. THE SHERIFF OF BABYLON

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At this time last year, while writing my 2015 Top 10 list, I’m sure that I remarked on the astounding first issue of The Sheriff of Babylon.  At the time, I remember thinking that if the series kept up anywhere near that standard, it would surely be in serious contention for the top spot in 2016.  And here we are.  The Sheriff of Babylon is a searing, angry comic.  Mitch Gerads may bring a subtle, understated quality in his visualisation of the US occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s, but this plain, detached approach veils tumultuous emotions bubbling under the surface, and makes the outrages and tragedies contained within the story all the more harrowing in contrast.  As a narrative on its own merits, The Sheriff of Babylon works extremely well.  In the first issue, immediately, we are introduced to three immediately compelling characters, each with their secrets and demons, and watch as their paths are set on a course that will bring them all together, looking into the appearance of a dead Iraqi soldier.  Any one of these figures would make for a readable protagonist, but watching all three play off one another against such an evocative backdrop makes for compulsive reading.  But on a level beyond the core narrative, The Sheriff of Babylon is a condemnation of the Iraq War.  A recurring theme throughout is the denial of responsibility, how decisions are made by disinterested people, and they get fed down the chain through winding degrees of separation until they cause devastation to lives on the ground.  It’s a damning indictment on the ways we can have our humanity taken from us, or (knowingly or otherwise) take that humanity from ourselves.  And the big payoffs of the series come when that winding chain is severed and characters are forced to make decisions which will have immediate, violent consequences.  Not just the definitive Iraq War story of any piece of fiction I’ve seen, in any medium, but one of the best war stories in recent years too.  An absolutely essential read.

And that’s the 2016 list!  Here’s the annual standings as they now read:

  • 2010: Scalped
  • 2011: Scalped
  • 2012: The Underwater Welder
  • 2013: The Manhattan Projects
  • 2014: Southern Bastards
  • 2015: Southern Bastards                                                                                               
  • 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon

Sorry it was late this year, but I hope you still enjoyed reading it.  I already have stuff I’m looking forward to in 2017, from seeing the DC Rebirth titles continue their progress, to seeing perennial favourites that had quiet years hopefully make big comebacks, to comics which have just started at year’s end (this year’s top 2 – both Vertigo comics, funnily enough – were both books which were brand new with not enough issues to allow for inclusion when I was compiling last year’s list), to enticing new creator-owned titles on the way.  Come back next December to see what makes the cut as best of the best!

Two-Face & I

Two-Face & I

Okay, let me talk a wee bit about Two-Face.

Those who know me will know that The Joker has long been my favourite comics villain, one of my favourite characters in fiction. They might not know that for many years before The Joker took that top spot it was occupied by Two-Face. There’s a pivotal memory from my childhood where my experience of the Batman mythos expanded beyond the Burton films and the four villains who appeared in the 1966 Adam West movie… okay, 5, I saw the Mr Freeze episode of the old TV series too. But Two-Face was a key figure in me becoming fascinated in a wider Batman world, and getting into the comics… a gateway drug for getting into comics in general.

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Back when BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES first aired on UK TV, around 1992 so I’d have been 5 or 6, one of the earliest episodes I still have memories of experiencing for the first time was the two part Two-Face origin story. The cliffhanger ending of the first episode – where Batman’s friend, District Attorney Harvey Dent, is horribly disfigured, the reveal of his face shown in gruesome high-rendered detail as he runs screaming out of the hospital ward into the thundery night – horrified and transfixed young me. One of my earliest memories of breathlessly anticipating the next episode of a TV series, with the only earlier memories being the “same Bat time, same Bat channel!” cliffhangers of the Adam West show reruns. In fact, my mum was due to take me out with her to go see her friend the following Saturday, and the only way she got me to go was by making her friend record the episode so I could watch it once I got there. And that episode sealed the deal on Two-Face being my new favourite baddie, that raspy, cut-glass voice entrenched forever in my memory. From there on I would fill endless sheets of paper drawing him, and I quickly nabbed up his BTAS action figure and carried it around with me everywhere!

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was giddy to learn Two-Face would be the villain of BATMAN FOREVER, played by Tommy Lee Jones. I remember being so hyped for that film, and being overjoyed seeing Two-Face on the big screen – don’t be hard on me, I was 8. I have a weirdly specific memory of being on holiday in Majorca and endlessly re-enacting a Two-Face’s death scene from that film, throwing a handful of coins in the air and grasping wildly for them with a death scream as I tumbled backwards into the pool.

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It was around that time I made my first foray into reading single issue American comic books. I went to Candleriggs Market with my cousin, where they had a big comic stall set up, and I was specifically looking for Two-Face comics. I ended up leaving with a couple of chapters of Matt Wagner’s FACES.

Fast forward a decade or so to 2005, and I’d drifted from comics a bit after a foray into Marvel back when I was moving into my teens. But now at age 18, one of the two graphic novels which got my back into comics with a vengeance – the other being THE KILLING JOKE – was THE LONG HALLOWEEN. Which is of course one of the all-time great Two-Face stories. If, from this point on, The Joker was firmly established as my #1 Batman villain, Two-Face was #2 (appropriately enough), and has never really slipped from there.

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Of course, The Joker alone was enough to make THE DARK KNIGHT my most anticipated movie ever, but when I found out that Harvey Dent and then Two-Face would also be in the film, that pushed my hype to astronomical levels. I was just as excited to see Aaron Eckhart’s performance as I was Heath Ledger’s. And while I know some didn’t like Two-Face’s inclusion, I loved it: a Batman movie with both The Joker AND Two-Face! It’s like if you tried to create my ultimate film experience in a test tube. No wonder it is still my all-time favourite film.

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Also, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but one of my proudest writing achievements remains my two-year long stint writing Harvey Dent in the online RPGs I used to play in. When I wasn’t doing half-assed rips of scenes from THE SHIELD and THE WIRE, I relished digging into that character’s psyche in obsessive detail.

It’s funny how there are certain fictional characters who, when you look back through your life, you see were always there in some form, marking out the big moments like members of the family. Two-Face is one of those for me. He’s one of a very select few characters whose appearance will always interest me, and tempt me to pick up even a series I wasn’t previously reading.

Two-Face has been relatively quiet in the New 52 era. Apart from a brief storyline in the underrated Pete Tomasi run on BATMAN & ROBIN (I’d say Tomasi/Gleason but I believe Doug Mahnke drew that particular arc), he hasn’t been given much to do. Which is why I’m VERY excited about his big return in ALL STAR BATMAN, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by John Romita Jr, out this Wednesday.

Snyder did amazing things with The Joker during his BATMAN run in “Death of the Family” and “Endgame”, making the character the most frightening he’s been in ages. I can’t wait to see what he does with Two-Face. As the release draws near I realise my anticipation is off the charts!

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My Top Ten Comics of 2014

Hello and welcome once more to my annual countdown of the Top 10 comics of the year. You’ll notice that, after last year’s inflated Top 20 list, I’m back down to 10 for 2014. That’s not to suggest that the quality of titles being released is in decline, but rather that I’ve probably been buying a little less comics this year, having to make some ruthless cuts to my pull list as having less and less free time to read through my comics has left a larger and larger pile of unread books to try to get to. That, and the fact that it took me ages to write that Top 20 list last year! 2014 has been another year of change for me, as while last year I talked a bit about how the number of Image titles I was reading had skyrocketed, this year I’ve had to drop a few of those. And while last year I said that I’d all but stopped reading Marvel and DC’s output, Marvel at least has made a big comeback for me, with an array of quality launches this year. Also noteworthy is the ascendancy of BOOM! Studios, with such quality output as The Woods, Memetic, Curse, Black Market and The Empty Man, and I’ve really been enjoying Oni Press output like The Life After and The Bunker. As ever, there are plenty of great comics I couldn’t fit into my top 10. Aforementioned indie offerings The Life After and The Woods, and other cracking indie titles like MonkeyBrain breakouts D4VE and Headspace, not to mention Image debuts like Spread, Wytches, Roche Limit and Deadly Class. Even some previous Top 10 mainstays like Batman, Saga and Sex Criminals, while maintaining a consistent quality, didn’t make the cut. Charles Soule wrote stellar comics for both Marvel and DC that came close to qualifying in She-Hulk and Swamp Thing respectively. Coming agonisingly close and actually being present in the list in an earlier draft was the delightful, charming, funny, surprisingly tender and emotional Dungeon Fun, by breakout genius Scottish creators Colin Bell and Neil Slorance. But what we’re left with is a collection of truly superb comics, some you may already be reading, others you should seek out. Let’s get right into it…
10. LEGENDARY STAR-LORD

LegendaryStarLordI figured out numbers 1-9 on this list pretty quickly, but there was a real fight for this final spot on the list. Just take a look at that vast “Honourable Mentions” list above to show how many quality comics were in contention. But I think the main two that got closest were this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy expansions, Legendary Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon. Both were fun, action-packed titles, and I have a hard time deciding which one I loved more. Rocket Raccoon is just fantastic, Skottie Young is doing stellar work on that title, and it was perhaps the title that had the bigger immediate “WOW!” reaction of the two. But it’s Legendary Star-Lord that has grown on me even more over the course of their respective runs. Star-Lord is my favourite Guardian, and Sam Humphries has, in this series, crafted a version of Peter Quill that does justice to all iterations of his character. The surface level that immediately grabs you as the series begins is how spot-on a pastiche of Chris Pratt’s excellent cinematic portrayal it is, right down to the dude-speak and man-child party lifestyle. But as the series has progressed, Humphries has skilfully weaved what might have seemed like a soft character retcon to make it feel like an appropriate character evolution that stays faithful to the haunted, guilt-ridden moral pragmatist that starred in the definitive Abnett & Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy run. There’s even the inclusion of an updated version of transport/confidante Ship from the very earliest Star-Lord appearances from the 1970s. The bombastic artwork of Paco Medina is a revelation, and it’s his bright, energetic visuals that really hammer home the glorious comedy beats: from Kitty Pryde dancing in a giant banana suit to Quill on an awkward date dressed in a bad ’80s prom tux. Straddling a line between rewarding single-issue stories and steadily building up an intriguing overarching narrative, Legendary Star-Lord is a gem of a comic that makes a great case for why Star-Lord is a hero deserving of his own solo title.
9. EAST OF WEST

EastOfWest10East of West has slipped a little from its #2 ranking last year. Don’t get me wrong, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s sci-fi/Western opus still ranks up there with Image’s best titles and is always a book that gets read very soon after I get home from buying it at the local comic shop. If anything, the lower placement is reflective of not poorer storytelling, but more subtle storytelling, with Hickman and Dragotta carefully expanding the world and often replacing the more sweeping scope of the initial arc with a series of one-shots exploring the various nations of this alternate America. All were interesting to varying degrees, though at times this approach left me missing some of my favourite characters and wondering when certain plot beats would be followed up on. But when the various threads start to weave together and the individually-defined forces start to clash, you really feel a sense of culmination, and the sheer scale feels even more epic and breathtaking for the build-up that set it up. With what has been set up as of the latest issue I read, Hickman seems primed to take this world into even darker places as the narrative enters its next phase. But it’s the team of Nick Dragotta and colourist Frank Martin that continue to steal the show with each passing chapter. There’s not an issue that goes by where I don’t have to stop at least once and just marvel over the construction of a page. Still arguably the most visually stunning art team in comics.
8. ANDRE THE GIANT: LIFE AND LEGEND

AndreTheGiantI’ll get this out of the way: you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. All you have to be is a fan of fascinating life stories, realised with wonderful comics storytelling by Box Brown. But I’ve been a wrestling fan going back to when I was a little kid, albeit not so much lately. And the first person I can remember being a favourite wrestler of mine was Andre the Giant. The 7-foot-plus tall athlete was, pun intended, a larger-than-life presence, and this graphic biography does a great job of conveying that, with various interviewees sharing accounts of the sheer size of the man and the unique life he led as a result of it that range from the charming to the breathtaking. But his size, which gave him incredible fame and a livelihood, was also an incredible burden. Most obviously, it was a medical condition, one that was slowly killing him. But, as Brown astutely depicts, it also negatively impacted his life in a whole series of constant little inconveniences and humiliations that wore him down, the cold fact that in one context, he was “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” but in another he was just a freak. The biography is more a highlight reel than an exhaustive analysis, but we do get some excellent snapshots of his life. We see how he used to get lifts to school from Samuel Beckett as a boy in France, and we get a look at his time on the set of The Princess Bride. But most effectively of all, Box Brown paints a portrait of an era of American history that holds endless fascination for me: the 1980s wrestling circuit and all the eccentricities contained within. Informative, poignant, and often laugh-out-loud funny, when I read Andre the Giant: Life and Legend back near the start of the year, it became probably the first definite fixture on this list and its place has stayed secure ever since.
7. STRAY BULLETS: KILLERS

StrayBulletsKillersWhat a fantastic year 2014 has been for fans of David Lapham’s seminal crime epic, Stray Bullets. With no new chapters published in some time, and the series arguably never getting the widespread acclaim and recognition it deserved, it seemed in danger of being consigned to history as an unfairly forgotten comics classic. But then Image Comics signed a new deal to revive Stray Bullets last year, prompting the series to be posted up on ComiXology. Then, this year, the original run was finally brought to a conclusion with Stray Bullets #41, followed by the whole series being released in a deluxe omnibus called “The Uber Alles Edition,” allowing a whole new generation of readers to get absorbed into this dark, ruthlessly bleak saga. And then we got Stray Bullets: Killers. David Lapham has slipped effortlessly back into this seedy world and its inhabitants, like slipping into an old pair of comfy slippers, not missing a beat. As always with Stray Bullets, Killers seems to operate on the fringes of the crime genre, looking at how regular people on the fringes are impacted, or how their moral decisions can have a ripple effect. The backbone of Killers has been the blossoming and ultimately wilting romance between recurring protagonist Virginia and Eli, two flawed characters who make mistakes, but who we come to deeply care about, and whose happiness we become highly emotionally invested in. A happiness which, if Stray Bullets has taught us anything, shouldn’t be expected to last. Killers is often a low-key series, and as such even now is still to some degree being overlooked, not always getting mentioned amongst the other great Image titles of the past year. But Stray Bullets: Killers is actually better than most of them, and has produced some of the best single issues of any comic in 2014.
6. THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

MP19AlbertReturnsLast year’s #1 didn’t quite reach the same heights on this year’s list, in fact slipping to the ranking it held back in the 2012 list. But that’s hardly to suggest that writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra’s bonkers revisionist history tale of mad science gone wild is in decline. This is a series that continues to fire on all cylinders with big, crazed ideas. Talking dog Laika got her own standalone adventure in space. The original Albert Einstein from our Earth came back to our reality to confront his evil parallel Earth doppleganger, and we got to see the mad journey across countless realms he had to brave to return home. William Westmoreland joined the cast as a hardcase with an ear necklace who took on an elite alien killing machine and won. We discovered that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro had their brains replaced by evil Communist aliens. And it all built up to a take on the assassination of JFK (magic bullet and all) that was about as bonkers as we’ve come to expect. The visuals of this book from Pitarra and colorist Jordie Bellaire continue to be an absolute delight, packed with detail and character quirks that had so much to the fabric of the story and make it what it is. The cast and the scope of this series continues to get bigger and bigger, and so the year ended with The Manhattan Projects going on hiatus, with a promise to come back in 2015 with more character-driven arcs focusing on the various narrative strands one at a time. Whatever format The Manhattan Projects takes going forward, you can be certain that I’ll be onboard!
5. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

ThorGodOfThunderFor the sake of clarity, it’s Thor: God of Thunder – the 25-issue series drawn largely by Esad Ribic, which ended a few months back – which is my included entry on this list, rather than the newly relaunched Thor, also written by Jason Aaron. Not that the new series, isn’t really great – honestly, save for the new issue #1, it’s pretty much a continuance of the narrative from God of Thunder and part of the same overarching saga – but it’s just getting started, really, so if I must pick one title for inclusion on this list I’ll go for Thor: God of Thunder. This title was excellent right from its beginning, and during the “God Butcher” storyline quickly established itself as one of the crown jewels in Marvel’s lineup. But it was with Esad Ribic’s return to the series in “Last Days of Midgard” that the title reached its greatest heights, and Jason Aaron cemented his status as best Thor writer since Simonson. This storyline told two tales. One narrative was of an Earth in the future that had been left as little more than a ravaged husk, old King Thor left to defend it against Galactus come finally to claim the remains of the planet that had thwarted him for so long. Here we saw Ribic at his finest, depicting a Galactus that truly inspired awe and terror, underlining the impossible odds Thor faced in fighting him. The other tale was in a present that eerily foreshadowed the desolation of the future, with evil corporation Roxxon embarking on dangerous, morally repellent initiatives that bring them into conflict with Thor. Now, Jason Aaron has already made major contributions to the villains in Thor’s mythos without even using arch foe Loki: from introducing the terrifying Gor to giving real teeth and wickedness to Malekith in a portrayal that put his cinematic appearance to shame. So it’s not a statement I make likely when I say that Roxxon figurehead Dario Agger was the most vile, repellent villain Thor faced in the whole series. He was a great opponent for Thor, because he was not someone Thor could just hit with his hammer. He was a very Earthly evil, hiding behind lawyers and dirty corporate tricks and playing on a level even a heavy-hitter superhero like Thor struggled to keep up with. From beginning to end, Thor: God of Thunder was a delight: dramatic, scary, and often surprisingly funny. It seems like we should expect more of the same from the new Thor.
4. THE MULTIVERSITY

PaxAmericanaAs a huge Grant Morrison fan, The Multiversity has long seemed like one of those dream projects, long discussed, that I’d forever been looking forward to, but felt was never going to actually come to pass. It’s literally been years that Morrison has been talking about this, so even when it appeared in solicitations, I still don’t think I quite believed it was finally happening. I don’t think I believed it until I held that first issue in my hands. But now that it’s launched and the first few issues have been released, I can gladly confirm that it has met and even exceeded expectations. This is Morrison’s trip through the Multiverse, at once a medley of returning characters and recurring motifs from his past work, and trailblazing into new terrain. The first issue was dizzying in scope, giving us a sense of a vast, mad DCU filled with depth and intricacies to a degree we haven’t really seen since the New 52 began back in 2011, and also giving us the return of CAPTAIN CARROT! After that we got a glorious, pulp-inspired rendition of the JSA, with great portrayals of the likes of Doctor Fate. Next up was a universe populated with the various legacy heroes following on from their iconic predecessors, like Morrison doing Jupiter’s Legacy better than Millar. But best of all was “Pax Americana,” drawn by art legend and frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely, which saw the pair tackle the original Charlton heroes like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and The Question that served as the basis for Watchmen. And, never one to shirk from ambition, and being quite bold as brass in the face of Moore’s criticisms about Morrison copying his work, Morrison and Quitely tackle head-on the very ideas of comics structure that Moore and Gibbons were exploring with Watchmen, and arguably pushes the envelope even further. Frank Quitely is possibly my favourite comic artist ever, so it’s not lightly that I say this could be some of his finest work to date, with the assured colour palette of Nathan Fairbairn acting as the perfect compliment to his style.  What I’ve loved about every issue so far, though I can also see it being a bit infuriating, is that rather than just creating a bunch of one-and-dones, Morrison has written a collection of fantastic issue #1s, all of which end having introduced us to an immersive world and leaving us desperate for an issue #2 that will never come. Such amazing craft and world-building throughout. This is a barmy celebration of DC’s Multiverse, and of superhero comics in general, done in a way only Grant Morrison can. Fantastic.
3. DAREDEVIL

DaredevilDepressionDaredevil, as written by Mark Waid and over the past couple of years mostly drawn by Chris Samnee, is a comic that has existed on the periphery of my perception for quite some time. I’ve always been aware of the popularity and critical acclaim behind the title, and I’d read an issue here or there, but 2014 was finally the year I dove in, thanks to the Marvel NOW relaunch that relocated Matt Murdock to San Francisco, but largely kept the tone, cast and overarching storylines consistent from the previous volume. I used this opportunity to give Daredevil a try, and at last I was hooked. I went back and bought the whole of Volume 3 in the three deluxe hardcover editions, stormed through it, and was left kicking myself for taking so long to jump on the bandwagon. When looking at how influential this title has been – you could argue it has inspired a whole line of creative thought in Marvel’s publishing output, from a shift to shorter story arcs, to an increased spotlight on more stylised, cartoony artwork over more glossy, cookie-cutter fare – it’s easy to overlook just how brilliant Daredevil remains, and how it’s still setting the bar. So, let’s take a closer look at this year in Daredevil, in particular the title since it was relaunched as Volume 4. As stated above, while the locations are fresh, much of the themes are carrying on from what came before. And, in particular, this underlying notion that Daredevil’s bright, upbeat “new beginning” where he’d make a conscious decision to be happier was perhaps less secure than it first seemed that has been niggling away since Waid’s tenure began has really been scrutinised and drawn into the open. We got the first allusions to it in the two-part Original Sin tie-in (surely one of the best tie-ins that event produced) where we explored Matt’s mother, and discovered she suffered from post-partum depression when Matt was an infant. This exploration of mental illness built up to the high-point of the volume: the recently-completed “Purple Children” storyline, where longtime Daredevil foe The Purple Man sets loose a group of his illegitimate children whose more primal version of his mind-controlling powers may be even more potent than his own. On one level, this worked as a thrilling superhero story, with The Purple Man as scary and nasty as ever. But it also served as an excellent study of depression, and the continued stigmas surrounding mental illness that prevent people seeking help. Daredevil has long been one of the best developed superheroes in comics, and Waid manages to add a new dimension to his personality in an utterly believable, relatable way. And Chris Samnee’s artwork! Every page is a joy to behold, with clean lines packed with vibrant, kinetic energy, bolstered by the crisp colours of Javier Rodriguez and, more recently, Matthew Wilson. Even as a character who has had some rather definitive, iconic artists draw him, Samnee may have emerged as my ultimate Daredevil artist. Believe the hype. Daredevil by Waid and Samnee is simply the most perfectly-realised superhero comic on the shelves today.
2. THROUGH THE WOODS

ThroughTheWoods1While the marketing may have been focused on Original Sin and Future’s End, for me, right from when I first heard about it late last year, I knew that Through the Woods by Emily Carroll would be my “event comic” of 2014. The immensely talented Emily Carroll first came to my attention with “His Face All Red,” a chilling webcomic that to this day is one of the creepiest, most perfectly-structured horror comics ever. And so I was highly excited by the prospect of this graphic novel anthology, collecting “His Face All Red” in print for the first time alongside a collection of original short horror tales. After spending half the year breathlessly anticipating Through the Woods, I was very pleased when the final product lived up to expectations. Emily Carroll has a distinctive approach to horror, a lyrical quality that makes them feel like old fables, or forgotten children’s tales with a sinister underbelly. And like those children’s tales, her stories play with primal, universal fears: the loss of loved ones, or that those you care about are not all that they appear to be. Her artwork complements this vibe by being quite simple and childlike, but deceptively detailed and still capable of repellent, horrific imagery. Every story in the collection is strong, there’s not one dud here, but if I had to pick my favourites, in addition to the previously mentioned “His Face All Red,” I’d pick out “The Nesting Place” – a bloodcurdling mix of Cronenbergian body horror and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – and “In Conclusion,” the epilogue which deftly plays with the imagery of Little Red Riding Hood to bring the book to a simple but unsettling close that will linger in the memory and induce shudders long after reading. This year, we’ve been spoiled with a treasure trove of quality horror comics, so much so that I even wrote about it on my blog. But standing above them all is Through the Woods, and with this collection, Emily Carroll has cemented her status as the Queen of Comics Horror, second only to the legendary Junji Ito when it comes to using the comics medium to craft fear. And speaking of Junji Ito, I’ve learned that he has a new collection getting translated into English, due for a 2015 release. Now I know what my “event comic” of 2015 will be, then…
1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

SouthernBastards1There are certain books that you know right away you’re going to love. Southern Bastards was one of those books, where as soon as it got announced at Image Expo, I knew it was going to be a must-read. Anyone familiar with my previous annual top 10 comics lists or with my blog in general will know that I absolutely adore Scalped, Jason Aaron’s masterpiece. It attained the #1 spot on this list on multiple previous years during its run, and I wrote some very detailed, lengthy blogs dissecting some of the stuff I love about the gritty crime saga. It’s the series that established Jason Aaron as one of my favourite writers, and has led to be following him onto his work with Marvel, which I’ve enjoyed. But with Southern Bastards, drawn by his recurring collaborator Jason Latour, Aaron seemed to be setting up a book primed to fill the void left in my comics-reading life by Scalped when it ended. And in 6 issues, the book has done just that. Hell, you could argue it had done that by issue #1. Given that you could suggest Scalped took a story arc or so before it really got going, you might even argue that Southern Bastards has launched itself out of the starting block even faster than that classic. Immediately, you could tell this was two masters at work, with a sweaty, sun-scorched atmosphere that immersed you in the Deep South. Craw County is simultaneously depicted as a tangibly awful place that no one would want to go near, but also so well-realised in its scenery and its diners selling fried pie that I kinda want to go there. Latour’s red-hewn colour palette helps a great deal with this distinctive atmosphere, as does his hard-bitten character design. This is a tough world, and one laced with pain and tragedy. At first, we think we’re getting one kind of story, and we imagine we’re seeing the well-worn story tracks laid out before us. But then that train is derailed in the most gut-punching, upsetting of fashions. “Upsetting” is something this book does well. I think I’ve had my heart broken reading this comic half a dozen times in as many issues. It feels like we’re still in the opening salvos of a much larger narrative, so the bigger picture of the plot may not yet be clear, but what truly elevates this comic are the characters. They feel nuanced, like real people (though maybe people you’d never want to actually meet), with Aaron once again displaying real skill for finding the bruised humanity in even the most seemingly awful of people. Six issues in, and already Southern Bastards feels like appointment reading, the book I know I’ll rush to read immediately as soon as I get it home, its cast of characters already nestling their way into my brain and into my heart. One thing that somewhat sets it apart from Scalped is acclaim. Scalped was one of the best comics ever, but it always felt a bit like an underrated gem, beloved by those who discovered it but overlooked by wider audiences. I would put it at #1 on my lists while beseeching people to give it a try. On the other hand, I write this knowing that Southern Bastards is almost a boring choice to top my list with, as everyone seems to be putting it in their lists. But sometimes a choice is obvious because it is absolutely deserved. And I for one am glad that the rise of Image Comics and creator-owned comics means that a comic as excellent as Southern Bastards can get the recognition and respect it deserves. Roll on year two!
And that’s that! What will next year’s list bring? Will Southern Bastards be the first comic since Scalped to take the #1 spot more than once? Or will one of the books currently slated for a 2015 release that I’m eagerly looking forward to, like Junji Ito’s Fragments of Horror or Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, nab the top spot? We’ll have to wait until next December to know for sure. In the meantime, as ever, I’ll end with an overview of the annual standings, and what comics have made the #1 spot each year I’ve ran this feature on my blog….

2010: Scalped
2011: Scalped
2012: The Underwater Welder
2013: The Manhattan Projects
2014: Southern Bastards

Thanks for reading, everyone. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

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On Comics Custodianism and the Illusion of Change

avengers-nowThe comic book news cycle has been ablaze over the past few days with news of some big changes coming to Marvel comics in the months ahead.  As part of what the publisher is calling their “Avengers NOW!” initiative, some of their flagship characters are having their titles relaunched with new issue #1 and jarring new status quos.  The biggest of these changes have merited announcements on mainstream media outlets.  The View revealed that Thor will now be a woman.  Then The Colbert Report revealed that the new Captain America will be black.

As one with any familiarity with the internet may have anticipated, this has already been met with much howling and gnashing of teeth from large segments of the comic fan community.  And of course, we all breathlessly anticipate the ultra-Conservative tin-foil hat brigade wading in to declare that this is some politically correct conspiracy by The Liberals to destroy comics and, by extension, America… somehow.  Plenty of people have already astutely pointed out that people seemed to have little problem with Thor being replaced by a frog, or a horse-faced alien, or another white dude in the wake of the recent Fear Itself event, but a woman taking the mantle is seemingly a bridge too far!  I’ve seen people spitting out with venom the idea that this is all a cynical ploy to pander to black people and women.  First, it seems there’s a certain breed of white straight male reader who defines “pandering” as anything that doesn’t pander directly and exclusively to them.  Second, I think such a status quo shift is going to appeal to more than just female and black readers, respectively, for reasons I’ll go into later.  And third, if this does pique the interest of women or black people who previously didn’t feel engaged by Marvel’s output, how is that a bad thing?

However, I don’t think that anyone who hates these relaunches is inherently racist or sexist.  Though some of them certainly are, it would be unfair to paint all with the same brush.  The comic fans I want to focus on more in this particular bit of commentary are the advocates of comics custodianism.  Allow me to clarify.  There’s a bit of a problem with a large chunk of Marvel and DC’s fanbase, something that prevents them from ever truly being happy with the product.  They’ll complain that the comics are stale, that some life and energy and good high-stakes storytelling needs to be injected back into their favourite superheroes.  But the dilemma is that, if you get a great writer and put them on a superhero comic, the tools they’d be most inclined to employ in order to tell the best story – new threats, shocking changes to the protagonist’s life, a genuine sense of peril and uncertainty over how the hero will be able to restore status quo – stand in direct contrast to what this segment of the fanbase actually wants.  They claim they want great storytellers in their comics, but what they actually want is a custodian.  They want their favourite heroes, static and forever unchanging, wearing the old clothes they always used to wear, fighting the old villains they always used to fight, hanging around with the same supporting cast they always used to hang around with, with nothing about their comfortable status quo changing in any notable way.  These readers don’t want the best story… they want comics comfort food.

And when someone does come in and make seemingly drastic changes… they get angry.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of the hero changing race or gender, any change seems to be enough to get them up in arms.  Peter Parker remained, physically at least, the white, male Peter Parker in Superior Spider-Man, yet writer Dan Slott received so many death threats on social media over the storyline that it made national news.  But these people never seem to learn, do they?  Because anyone with an ounce of rationality was able to say, “Of course Otto Octavius isn’t going to be Spider-Man forever, of course Peter Parker is going to be Spider-Man again in time for the movie.  It’s not a permanent change, it’s a storyline.”  These people were angry because the writer has succeeded in making then genuinely stumped about how the good guy was going to possibly triumph over evil, which is what he’s supposed to do!  These people must find watching a season of 24 unbearable: do they have to skip to the last episode where Jack Bauer wins?  I don’t know how long these people have been reading comics for, but they should know by now that a dead hero doesn’t stay dead for long.  Superior Spider-Man was about taking Peter Parker out of the role of Spider-Man for a while to illustrate how integral Peter is to the Spider-Man mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Spider-Man stories in years.  Just like how “The Death of Captain America” in Captain America a few years ago, where Captain America died for a while and was replaced by Bucky Barnes (who’s white, so people didn’t seem to mind as much), it became a story used to illustrate how integral Steve Rogers is to the Captain America mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Captain America stories in years.  Or “Black Mirror” in Batman, where Dick Grayson took over as Batman in Gotham City while a recently-resurrected Bruce Wayne established a global crime-fighting franchise, where the story was used to illustrate how integral Bruce Wayne is to the Batman mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Batman stories in years.  Are we beginning to notice a trend here?

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Marvel are going back to the well of what has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success too often, and risk blunting its impact.  But if you’re out there and you’re outraged because you genuinely believe that female Thor or black Captain America are a permanent or even a long-term replacement?  Sorry, I don’t know a polite way of saying that you’re a fucking idiot, so I’ll just come out and say it: you’re a fucking idiot.

Amidst all the cries of fury about black people ruining Captain America and women ruining Thor, it’s amazing how few people seem to have actually read the small print of what’s actually happening in these various comics, story-wise.  Indeed, it seems a large number of the fans outraged by this haven’t even been reading the books, and just seek comfort in traditional, unchanging versions of these heroes as an abstract concept.  This was wonderfully exemplified by one outspoken user on Twitter demanding that Jason Latour be fired for writing Thor so terribly as to make him a women… when of course it’s Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor: God of Thunder (which is brilliant, by the way) and who will be carrying on through the Thor relaunch.  But if all these people bemoaning the loss of their favourite heroes actually took the time to look into the story and the context, they’d see that they actually aren’t losing their favourite heroes at all!  The original Thor and Captain America aren’t dying, which in itself makes this status quo shift less drastic than many.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, female Thor.  Yes, Thor is relaunching, and yes, the new God of Thunder and holder of Mjolnir is a woman.  But while the designs of the new masked female Thor have been widely distributed, this image has been shared less frequently:

thor-unworthyYep, it’s the same male Thor we all know and love.  And if you read Jason Aaron’s interview over on Comic Book Resources, he makes it abundantly clear that Thor remains a main protagonist in the series going forward.  Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that plot machinations have caused Asgard to turn on Thor and deem him “unworthy”, stripping him of his hammer Mjolnir and removing him from their pantheon.  So now a humbled Thor must fight to regain his mantle and unlock the mystery of the mysterious woman who has replaced him.  Surely any level-headed person could read that and think, “That sounds like an interesting Thor story.”

Now let’s look at All-New Captain America.  After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a lot of people talked about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, deserving his own series.  But it seems some of them didn’t want that coming at the expense of Steve Rogers.  The story seems to go that the Super-Soldier Serum is wearing off on Steve Rogers, and he’s no longer able to continue being Captain America.  And so his close friend Sam Wilson steps into the role in his stead.  But again, let’s look at some Marvel promotional material:

Avengers-Now2Black Captain America is in there, but to the right of the shot we have an elderly blonde man.  Surely this is Steve Rogers, and that suggests that Steve Rogers will remain an active character in this All-New Captain America comic.  I would imagine that a major element of the book will be, after decades of being a man out of time, suddenly he’s placed in a position where time is catching up with him, and how does he deal with that?  Again, as a fan of Captain America, I think that’s an intriguing story to tell.

Meanwhile, Marvel have also announced Superior Iron Man, where Tony Stark moves to San Francisco and starts engaging in some morally dubious activity.  If the “Superior” tag is anything to go by, I imagine the twist in this tale will be that Tony is being controlled by a villain.  And if we’re talking movie synchronicity here, my money is on Ultron.

All this is coming together to paint a bigger picture of what “Avengers NOW!” is shaping up to be.  It’s a time leap narrative of some sort, it seems, where after a gap our main characters find themselves in drastically altered circumstances, and part of the fun is figuring out both how they got into these situations and how they’ll eventually get out of them.  And it all seems to be tying into Jonathan Hickman’s big climactic Avengers storyline “Time Runs Out”, which brings all these status quo shifts together and adds another big one.  It seems like Thanos is now the leader of The Avengers:

ThanosTimeRunsOutAnd this is where we get down to there being two different types of reader.  There are those who want comics custodianism, and they’ll be fuming at all this upheaval, all this shattering of status quo.  And then there are readers who like high stakes and surprises in their storytelling, who are viewing these as stories and are intrigued.  I know I’m interested, and that I’ll be picking all these up.  I already read Thor: God of Thunder, but after grabbing the early issues I’ve fallen behind on the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers titles.  This will make me jump back on.  And I’m not black, I’m not a woman, I’m just a fan of good stories and good characters.  When you look at these characters as being more than just their specific costumes and power sets, you should be able to recognise that these storylines are actually potentially great fodder for Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as characters.  And it’s a real shame people can’t see past the “THOR IS A WOMAN!” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA IS BLACK!” buzzwords.

Glasgow Comic Con 2014: THIS WEEKEND!

It’s that time of year again!  There’s a little less than a week to go until Scotland’s comic community comes together for Glasgow Comic Con.  The show will be at the CCA on Sauchiehall Street, on Saturday 5th July and Sunday 6th July. I’ll be at the con, promoting my various comic projects. You can find my table up on the Level 2 Club Room.

Like And Then Emily Was Gone? I’ll have the last remaining stock of the black-and-white small press editions of issues #1 and #2 before the colour edition debuts worldwide at the end of July (this may be your last chance to get those, as once this stock is sold out I won’t be getting any more!), and I’ll also have an exclusive black-and-white preview edition of And Then Emily Was Gone #3 – Glasgow readers will get to see it months before the rest of the world! I’ll also be selling a range of limited edition prints, which look stunning. Only available while stocks last.

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Like The Standard? Well, at last, the series is complete. The final two issues, issues #5 and #6, will be available to buy from my table, months before their general release, with convention exclusive covers. We also have limited stock of all the other issues to let readers get caught up on the whole series.

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Like Chris Connelly? Well, he drew the convention exclusive covers for The Standard #5 and #6! He’ll be sharing the table with me at the con to sign any copies of the books you buy. We’ll also be selling the first issue of our Glasgow sci-fi series, Bad Sun, and Chris will be selling some lovely original art, and – I believe – doing commissions.

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You’ll also be able to find me at a panel on the Saturday, at 12pm.  In the CCA cinema, I’ll be part of the “SICBA Best Comic or Graphic Novel: Meet The Shortlist” panel, hosted by Craig Nielson, where I’ll be joined by Colin Bell, Craig Collins, Gil Hatcher and Morag Kewell.  Come along to see us all chat up our various comics, and discuss the process of creating them and getting them out into the world.

All that, and my books are also nominated for a bunch of SICBA awards! The Standard is nominated for Best Comic, I’m nominated for Best Writer, and Iain Laurie is nominated for Best Artist for And Then Emily Was Gone. voting is open throughout Saturday 5th July at the SICBA voting booth in the CCA’s first floor bar. If you’re attending, make sure to vote!

Tickets for the show are still available from www.glasgowcomiccon.com. It’s always a great show, and this year we have top notch comic guests like Gail Simone, Howard Chaykin and Erik Larsen, as well as familiar faces from the Scottish comics scene. Come along, have a great time, and support one of Scotland’s fastest-growing creative industries!

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Is 2014 Comics’ Summer of Horror?

EmilyInterviewTeaserOver the past couple of months, it feels like I have been immersed in horror. Over the course of this month in particular, it’s starting to seem like my every spare moment has been dedicated to talking up my horror comic series, And Then Emily Was Gone. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid my social media PR onslaught, here’s the series synopsis:

Greg Hellinger is a man who sees monsters. Driven to the brink of madness by monstrous apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening…

Equal parts Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Wicker Man, with an atmospheric rural Scottish setting, And Then Emily Was Gone is a comic I’m really proud to have written, and artist Iain Laurie, colorist Megan Wilson and letterer Colin Bell have all done stellar work. The five-issue miniseries will be released monthly by ComixTribe, with the first issue hitting comic shops in July. That means this is the month it’s in the Diamond Previews catalogue available for order, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the marketability for this weird little book. From the early stages, there was concern that there might not be an audience in the comic market for this kind of morbid, gruesome story, that this might sit as something of an oddity among the more bombastic, action-orientated fare available in Previews. But recently, it’s started to occur to me that something dark is afoot in the comics world. Horror comics are on the rise, and now And Then Emily Was Gone is feeling less like a strange curio and more like a small part of a big movement.

EMILY 0108Just look at the new releases on the shelf of your local comic shop this week. Wednesday 7th May marked the launch of two new horror titles: Nailbiter and The Woods. Nailbiter is an Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, about a small town in the American heartland that has been the birthplace of 16 prolific serial killers, and the disquieting secrets that town may hold. It was first announced at Image Expo in January, and did not seem like the most high-profile unveiling of that weekend. But over the past couple of months, I’ve watched buzz steadily built, first as people were floored by the blood-drenched preview art coming from Mike Henderson, then as the word-of-mouth started slipping out from those who’d read advance copies and were blown away. There was something palpable in the air that Nailbiter was going to be very special indeed, possibly the latest Image #1 to make a big splash. It says a lot that in the week that both Marvel and DC’s big crossover events of the year debuted – Original Sin and Future’s End respectively – the coverage and “book of the week” accolades going to Nailbiter threatened to upstage both of them. And having read the first issue myself, I can assure you it’s worthy of the hype. Mike Henderson’s moody artwork is a revelation, and while Joshua Williamson already turned heads last year with his impressive work on Ghosted, but Nailbiter sees him up his writing game once more. A single issue efficiently presents us with a well-realised world with intriguing/disturbing characters, and a steady accumulation of dread literally visualised on the page with a recurring THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP heartbeat growing ever more prevalent.

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But as impressive as Nailbiter was, in my humble opinion The Woods just about matched it step-for-step. From Boom! Studios – the latest addition to their slate of quality original content as they become ever more serious in emerging as a match for Image’s dominance of the creator-owned market – from writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas, The Woods tells the story of a high school filled with pupils and staff which is suddenly and without explanation teleported to an alien world, at which point the people in the dramatically relocated building very quickly find themselves having to fight for their lives against monstrous alien beasts out to hunt them. The plot very quickly becomes gripping, and drew me in as a reader both in terms of the immediate tension presented in the high-stakes nature of the characters’ plight, and in a more overarching sense of thinking of the larger mystery behind how and why the school was brought to this world. But what really made The Woods stand out was the characters. Amongst the 513 people caught in this extra-terrestrial event, a small core ensemble of characters quickly emerge as figures to care about and get emotionally invested, already been drawn as real, likeable kids whose safety we are going to fear for. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Manga horror classic Drifting Classroom, pushing the same buttons of intense claustrophobia, child endangerment and what sides of human nature will emerge out in the wilderness, but with enough of an American twist to give it its own identity.

TheWoods1So, two horror comics debut in the same week, both are quality books with buzz and critical acclaim behind them. What is it indicative of, if anything? It’s not like the comic medium is any stranger to horror. There’s in fact a rich history of horror comics. The biggest creator-owned comic in the industry today is The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror comic, though I’d argue it’s evolved into more of a sweeping post-apocalyptic epic. And in recent years we’ve had our share of modern classics in the genre: Locke & Key, Severed, Echoes. But what stands out as different this year is the density with which these horror titles are hitting, and the splash they’re making. Nailbiter and The Woods both seem poised to go from strength to strength, but there are more debuts on the horizon. Spread, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Kyle Strahm, is built around the delicious high-concept of “The Thing meets Lone Wolf and Cub,” and boasts some truly blood-curdling imagery. It caused a sensation at last year’s New York Comic Con, and now Image Comics have picked it up and have it slated for a July release. It got a major spotlight in this month’s Previews, and is already starting to build something of a social media steamroller behind it as that advance buzz brews. Watch this become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

Spread1As the summer continues to roll on into August and beyond, some of the biggest names in comics will be getting in on the action. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock – the creative team behind one of the most celebrated Batman stories of the past decade, The Black Mirror – are reteaming for Image Comics to bring us Wytches. Now, Snyder is no stranger to the horror genre. One could argue he cut his teeth in the genre, with both his breakthrough Vertigo hit American Vampire (which since its Second Cycle relaunch has really seemed to bring the horror to the fore) and the aforementioned Severed. Even his mainstream DC work on the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing has had a fair share of horror elements injected into it, and The Wake was rich in horror trappings before morphing into an equally compelling but tonally distinct entity in its second half. So it makes a statement when Snyder talks about Wytches being the darkest and scariest he’s ever gone. This is something that’s quite fascinating for me, as horror is still something of a frontier in comics, and creators are still experimenting with how best to use the medium to scare the reader. Snyder has already been amongst the most successful, with Severed in particular making for harrowing reading, so when some of the best in the field are pushing at the forefront and striving to go further than they ever have, it suggests it’s an exciting time to be a fan of horror comics.

Wytches1Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a horror comic is also on the agenda for Nameless, another Image Comics offering. This also sees the reunion of the creative team of an acclaimed Batman run, this time Batman Inc, as artist Chris Burnham pairs up once more with writer and comics legend Grant Morrison. Details of this series have been sparse, and we don’t even have a concrete release date yet, but Burnham has talked about this being “the ultimate horror comic,” while Morrison has suggested that his ambition is to capture the zeitgeist and use Nameless to project a definitive statement about what frightens us on a primal level in modern society – “doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation,” as Morrison puts it – and considering that when Morrison set out to make the definitive statement on the superhero he gave us All Star Superman, we should all be very afraid at what he has in store for us with Nameless.

Nameless1But even with these big name talents with debuts lined up, there is one horror comic that I’m looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first heard about it last year, there has been a graphic novel pencilled in as one of my premiere comic events of the year. The graphic novel I’m talking about is Through the Woods, by writer/artist Emily Carroll. When last I heard, it was set for a July release, but the marketing has been quite low-profile. But those who know about it are very excited about it indeed, as Emily Carroll is arguably the current master of the horror comic. His Face All Red is one of the single greatest horror stories to emerge from any medium in recent years. Like all the best horror, it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, makes you think, makes you ask questions then leaves you troubled in the late hours by the implied answers. Her work has been a big inspiration to me in terms of opening my eyes to what kind of horror was possible in comic form. And up until now, her output has all been in the form of free webcomics. Through the Woods marks Emily Carroll’s first foray into the realm of print, with His Face All Red being collected with some new stories. Any horror fan should be marking this down as an essential purchase. In the grand picture of “the summer of horror” and the rise of horror in comics, Through the Woods could end up being the most important book of all.

ThroughTheWoods1There’s a quote from actor/writer Mark Gatiss I particularly like, spoken at the beginning of the BBC documentary series, A History of Horror:

The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.

Just as horror films at their best have a unique power with the way they utilise the tools of that medium in the most visceral and potent of ways, I think that the comic medium has the same potential for engaging the senses. It’s a visual medium, and a well-crafted image can be seared on a reader’s psyche, yet despite the notable works in the field I feel like much of that potential remains untapped. Recently, I feel like horror cinema has lost much of its edge, and there haven’t been that many genuinely great horror films over the past several years. So, I talked about the frontier before, and I believe that more and more comics could become the proving ground where we go to scare ourselves in the most inventive and rewarding manner. For years I’ve felt like the horror market for comics could be huge, and this year it feels like we could be taking major steps in that direction. I don’t claim to be anywhere on the level of all these exciting works making their way to comic shops in the coming weeks and months, but if all the “summer of horror” does indeed prove to be a significant movement in the comics industry, I’m proud that And Then Emily Was Gone can be part of it.

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And Then Emily Was Gone #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY141251.  For more info, follow the Facebook page or check out the official blog.

Through the Woods is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code APR141272

Spread #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY140579

Wytches is released in August.  Nameless does not yet have a release date. 

Nailbiter #1 and The Woods #1 are available to buy now from all quality comic shops.