Friday, January 8, 2016

5 + 5 Favourites of 2015

5 + 5 Favourites of 2015
by Graig Kent

One of the big conversations of 2015 was that of “peak TV”, whether we’ve reached the limit on the amount of quality television the industry and its audience can viably support.  I don’t see it as a question posed strictly for Television, though.  Since the early 2000’s and the rapid acceleration of digital technology for both creation and distribution of nearly all forms of entertainment (including but not limited to books, comics, music, movies, podcasts) we’ve long surpassed our individual capacity to consume at the same rate even a fraction of what is created in this world, never mind catching up on what has come before.  Every form of cultural engagement, from YouTube to Twitter to cable television to your local stand-up comedy venue to pro and amateur sports to phone apps to your local record store to Kickstarter to Amazon to this very website and beyond is competing if not strictly for your entertainment dollar, then for your even more precious entertainment time.  

In our very privileged world we have the ability to be endlessly entertained, to be distracted from reality ad nauseum, permitting ourselves to be absorbed in the thrill of competition or the immersion of digital landscapes or projection into fictional lands and universes on a whim.  We seek emotional manipulation through these entertainment vices as if it were utter need, like food or water.  I’m sure this speaks volumes about where we are as a people, but I’m not the thinker capable of teasing out a theory on this.  Instead, like the majority of us, I’m a consumer, a slave to the poison of distraction and entertainment, with comic books being my all time favourite vice.

As much as I consume -- and the unsorted stacks of floppies and trades beside my bed indicate I consume a lot -- time is finite, so to even deign to create a “best of” list would imply that I was able to taste even a fraction of the overall output of 2015, which I was not.  My weekly pulls typically consist of 10-15 books, each month seeing at least half a dozen new titles sampled, not to mention the preview copies we receive that I taste, and even still I’ve not even scratched the surface of what came out this past year.  

As such, rather than adopt such hubris as to tell you what was “best”, I will pare down a list of what I liked the most in 2015, divided into two unsorted groups of five: New and Continuing.

Top Five Favourite New Titles of 2015:

Archie (4 issues, Archie Comics) - I shouldn’t be surprised that Mark Waid and Fiona Staples could create a comic that I would absolutely adore, as both creators have a history of doing so.  The surprise was that they could reinvent Archie so drastically without taking anything away from what has made the character and his world so endearing for so many decades.  Waid has found a new way to tell genuinely funny, dramatic and heartfelt stories with these characters, which Staples has visually brought these characters crashing into the modern day.  

Darth Vader (14 issues, Marvel Comics) - Despite The Force Awakens arrival happening so close to the end of the year, Star Wars ruled the public consciousness in 2015 more so than anything else in entertainment. Disney-owned Marvel wisely capitalized on the anticipation for Disney-owned Star Wars Episode VII with a seemingly endless parade of product, most of which was middling.  But Darth Vader by Keron Gillen and Salvador Larocca stood out immediately.  What could have been muddled fan service instead is a unique look into the world of the Sith Lord, at once maintaining the ruthless and cool mystique established by the Original Trilogy and subtly revealing the Anakin Skywalker of the Prequels (and Clone Wars) underneath, mostly through interaction with other characters as they scheme and plot against him and he does the same.  Also, having sociopathic versions of Artoo and Threepio may sound corny but are the best new additions to Star Wars outside of main The Force Awakens crew.

The Private Eye (10 issues, - a bit of a cheat as this started in late 2014 and ended in 2015 but I didn’t get around to reading it until this past year, plus the hardcover-collection-that-Robert-Kirkman-begged-to-do was released in December. It’s a hardboiled noir that incorporates all the tropes of the genre slapped into a futuristic setting following a privacy revolution, one where everyone hides their identities as much as possible all the time.  It’s a thoroughly unexpected setting, reactionary to the loss of identity security today, and overall tremendous fun, not to forget gorgeously illustrated by Marcos Martin.  Martin injects Vaughan’s sharp dialogue and thoughtful environments with rich details, kinetic energy.  and costume designs that are gorgeous, bordering on iconic.  It’s a tremendous read with great eye candy.

Sorcery Chapter 1 (1 volume, - Literally coming out of nowhere is this independently published black and white 58-page story of magic, time travel and a teenager’s detachment after a tragedy. Danny Zabbal is new to the comics scene, debuting as artist on F1rst Hero: Fight For Your Life at Action Lab and creating his delightful online series of one-panel Ordinary Heroes, all with sizeable charm, but it’s Sorcery that hearkens the arrival of a great talent to the industry, not just his unflinchingly confident and clean lines, but creating a story that manages to create a natural world of achingly real emotion that doesn’t feel at odds with the lively and surreal fantasy elements that jut in from the edges.  For an early effort this is an incredibly assured introduction to a book that’s on the level with classic Vertigo.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (11 issues, Marvel) - Squirrel Girl is a joke character that somehow gained a lot of traction in the past decade or so.  Ever since Dan Slott added her to the roster of his Great Lakes Avengers mini-series years back (where she stole the book), she’s been a fan (and personal) favourite, with sincerity and irony in equal measure. The legend (and joke) of Squirrel Girl has grown that she cannot be defeated (having bested Dr. Doom in her inaugural outing as a hero) and the title of the series reflects that.  The genius here is in acknowledging that Doreen Green’ alter ego is a silly concept, and that she’s going to work best with someone writing her adventures in a humorous manner. Enter Ryan North who not only nails down Squirrel Girl as a wondrous hero with a huge heart and tremendous spirit, but gets that she’s not a joke.  The situations she’s in can be funny, she can be funny, and funny things can happen to her, but at the core Doreen is just loveable and that comes across with every footnote at the bottom of every page.  Erica Henderson brings her wonderful cartooning skills to the book to create a distinct vision of the Marvel Universe that makes everything feel bouncy and lively.  It’s rare for a book to make me laugh out loud as much as this consistently does, it’s an absolute delight.

Top Five Favourite Continuing Series of 2015:

Chew (8 issues, Image Comics) - since 2009, John Layman and Rob Guillory have tread a very fine line between comedy and absurdity from issue 1 of this series, and masterfully so.  They continually manage to hit incredibly affecting dramatic notes and shocking moments of violence while traipsing through a world filled with food-related superpowers, cyborgs, kung-fu roosters, and alien sky writing.  There’s never been a down moment in Chew, nary an off arc.  As it heads into what’s likely its final year (Layman has said it’s always been planned as a 60-issue run), I’m just bracing myself for fireworks and tearful goodbyes.

East of West (7 issues, Image Comics) - Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s alternate America saga continues to truck along methodically, each issue centering on just a fraction of the overall cast, always deepening our understanding of particular aspects of this insane, intense world while furthering the intrigue as the various fractions slowly reveal their intentions.  Dragotta’s crisp art, distinctive characters, and eye-pleasing alternate history designs never fail to wow, while the art design on the book (like most of Hickman’s Image works) make the book stand out, and provides a unique look to match the unique feel each and every issue.   

Lazarus (8 issues, Image Comics) - Few comics have been as focused on world building as Lazarus.  The backmatter of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s dystopian future has a RPG Sourcebook’s level of detail contributing timelines and intensive amounts of backstory to this world. Lazarus’ story is thrilling and its setting frightening, especially once one considers how such a civilization could possibly come to pass.  A little beyond speculative fiction, Lazarus is intricate, well-realized pulp sci-fi.  

Saga (8 issues, Image Comics) - It almost goes without saying the Saga is one of the best books of the year, because it’s been one of the best books since day one.  It’s a full blown space opera, catering to both the sci-fi and fantasy crowds.  It’s a soap opera, treading in high melodrama, without a hint of irony or corniness (that Fiona Staples can draw the ridiculous creatures she draws and imbue them with such life is one of her greatest gifts).  It’s often hilarious, even though it’s not a straight out comedy, and it will make you laugh.  It’s not afraid to get dirty, or sexy, but it treats its audience with respect.  Together with Staples, Brian K Vaughan manages to find the right balance of everything, delivering a comic book that feels close to perfect every time.

Velvet (4 issues, Image Comics) - 2015 saw a new James Bond movie, a new Mission Impossible movie, the Kingsmen and Spy all rake in much cash at the box office (and Man From U.N.C.L.E. have moderately less success, though it’s still a fun picture).  It also saw a new James Bond comic book on the stands for the first time in two decades.  Spies are still big business, but despite the low output this year, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s contribution to the world of espionage was still the best.  Every issue of Velvet feels practically like the arrival of a new Bond picture, even if it’s just the next stage of the currently ongoing arc.  Epting’s visualization of the 1970’s feels spot on and cinematic (gorgeously colored by Bettie Breitweiser), while every character feels like a real person, with Velvet herself feeling like someone you know personally.  Issue by issue it’s a treat, as a full run it’s going to be legendary.

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