The Pull List: Top 20 Comics of 2015
I thought this was going to be pretty hard this year. I did not have the time to read as many graphic novels, and I was afraid that it would skew too much toward superheros. Thankfully, once I put it together it looked like there was more genre diversity than I thought.
20. The Kitchen
After a relatively vocal year of protests for more representation in comics (among other things), The Kitchen came at a pretty good time. It follows 3 mob wives who have to take over the “business” after their husbands are arrested and sent to prison. They get off to a tumultuous start, but they eventually start having their own Goodfellas esque rise to power, at least in their own neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, the kitchen of the title. A subverted take on the usual gangster yarn.
We Can Never Go Home starts off like a lot of geek fantasy stories, where a geek stands up to the most popular boy at school who is threatening the most popular girl, and all of a sudden the geek now has the attention of the girl that everyone wants attention from. Neither of these are exactly the characters we think they are. It turns out the popular girl has superpowers, and the geek is kind of a big asshole. The 2 hit the road when their biggest secrets get outted, and they are forced to do things they never were prepared for” like steal from drug dealers, fight with the cops, and gain the attention of some dangerous people connected to the girl’s origin.
Feathers sort of came and went, never gathering a lot of buzz except maybe my own weekly articles. This book was a pretty fun one. It was one part Mike Mignola, one part Laika studios. I could honestly see this play out in stop-motion teaming him up with Hellboy or anyone else from the BPRD. It starred a little boy covered in feathers, who was essentially playing Batman in a ficitonal slum called the Maze. He has to protect his first friend, a girl from a well-to-do family as well as all the other Maze’s street urchins from a mystery kidnapper. It is very fairytale-esque.
Klaus is as if Disney tried adapting the Santa Claus myth by mixing it with Robin Hood. Here, old Saint Nick is portrayed as a fur-trapper, who tries to sell his wares at a near by city that used to be teeming with life. Now being run by a ruler who steals all the townsfolks gifts for his own selfish child, the city has become a cold place. Klaus is determined to set that straight by ransacking the guards and leaving gifts for the children. Not the usual mind-trippy, hardcore subtext stuff we have come to expect from Grant Morrison, but he does write a scene where Klaus builds all the toys while on psychedelic mushrooms, items that are more closely associated with Santa than you would think. Seriously! Google it! It’s crazy!
Count me in as one of those people who is really disappointed with the new movie. It honestly wasn’t the garbage fire I thought it would be, but it represents so much wasted potential. That potential instead was put into this comic book series. It balances the Turtle’s gritty beginnings and kid-friendly popularity into what basically becomes contemporary tone of most superhero stories. They really got back to basics this year too. They put petty in-fighting of the family to the side and aimed them directly at Shredder and his Foot Clan and Hob and his mutanimal street gang.
I don’t usually like Mark Millar. I think he often uses “mature” content to seem edgy, but it comes off juvenile, like a child learning his first curse word. It doesn’t offer anything except an illusion of being for adults. Huck is nothing like that. It is about a funny, simple-minded, easy-to-like lunkhead with super strength and an uncanny ability to find people. He is supernaturally benevolent, and lately, I have been very much interested in these kinds of characters. It sort of reminds me of Goon in a weird way, tonally anyway.
The mythology of war is an interesting one. Being a soldier is a proud sacrifice. Being a warrior is a noble existence. Heroes are born. Cowards are revealed. And we just sort of gloss over the atrocities so we can get some cool action scenes and patriotic truisms. East of West is about war, but it is about all the politics, egos, selfishness, and self-perseverance of the parties involved, the psychological and emotional chess match that they play, that starts wars. I find it so fascinating. Add in a lot of end of the world the Horseman of the Apocalypse, a bunch of crazy prophecies, and a version of America torn apart by its own tribalism.
Grant Morrison and DC. It is a combination that has its detractors. Morrison loves getting into trippy territory. He leaves no stone unturned and is really willing to get weird with characters that are more or less considered traditional. People tend to want those characters to remain traditional. That sounds boring to me, and thank god someone like Morrison is ready and willing to give up us a series of standalone issues about other versions of the DC universe and how they are blending together. Someone has to blow the cobwebs off this 80 year old company.
Batman is awesome, but I was always a bigger fan of the Robins. I always thought the Robins were better examples of the Batman premise, the idea that a normal person could suit up, gear up, and take out some bad guys. Their flaws were beyond conceptual, they were never referred to as Robin-God the way Bruce has sometimes been referred to as Bat-God. Their personalities were much less cold, and that was always something I responded to more than Batman’s. This weekly Bat-related series is about that Robin legacy, teaming up Dick, Jason, and Tim plus Harper and re-introducing Cassandra Cain to the Bat-family while Bruce is all rebooted in the brain.
I do not know how many times I have described supernatural detective stories as one of my weaknesses, but I am sure it is more often then there are actually stories worth mentioning. This one is actually pretty legit. A war veteran gets some new abilities after a close call in the Middle East. He sees more now, and that basically amounts to all the crazy demonic mumbo jumbo that happens in his city. He has to naviagate some pretty crazy ground including a monster serial killer, an old racist gangster, a junkie best pal with a Cthulhu face, and a little girl who might be the ignition to the apocalypse. Fun times!
Alex + Ada was great for a long time, but it sadly came to a close this year. Early this year. I’m still counting it though because it was pretty awesome. For those not in the know, it takes place a few years in the future where people could buy android assistants. They were as prevalent as smartphones, and they have become very lifelike in their design. Alex eventually unlocks Ada’s sentience, an option that was made illegal after some androids started fighting for rights. In its last few issues, it really committed to the kind of stories that comic books are usually known for. Alex and Ada were on the run for unlocking Ada’s sentience with an ending that kept ping-ponging back and forth from bitter to sweet. Despite its detour into thriller territory, it never lost that underlying human story it originated with.
Paper Girls promises to continue being one of next year’s big hits. Taking place the morning after Halloween in 1988, a group of newspaper delivery girls end up having to maneuver more than just guard dogs and the last of the troublemaking trick’r treaters. They are faced with manic adults and a gang of strange disfigured code-speaking ninjas after messing around with a weird gizmo. Cliff Chiang brings the detailed-oriented style that made Wonder Woman so great at the beginning of the New 52 but applies it to teenage characters that are much more grounded in their appearance, while Brian K. Vaughn continues to prove he can make the absurdest of sci-fi/fantasy tales relatable.
While none of us were really paying attention, Moon Knight quietly became one of the best properties Marvel has going. He is constantly being reinvented. Charlie Huston played up the mythology. Greg Hurwitz made him a mix of Tony Stark and Frank Castle. Brian Michael Bendis leaned on his history of multiple personalities, and here, Warren Ellis (and later Cullen Bunn) put all those elements in a blender and threw it into a noir setting. It was often funny and almost always thrilling feet-on-the-ground superhero story that at one point checks in with all his old supporting characters. Get ready because the awesome Jeff Lemire is taking on the character in early 2016.
Saga has pretty much topped the list the first few years I tried making this list. Everything about it just comes together so well: the dialog, the art, the narrative. Lately, I haven’t loved it as much. It made some big moves this year and showed ever more ambition than it already has. Among them, they aged little Hazel to a toddler and broke up Alana and Marko. Our usual cast of characters have all been separated and thrown to different corners of the galaxy. They took the opportunity to hobble themselves for the drama of getting back, and it is slowly working for them. I know that doesn’t exactly sound like a glowing recommendation, but the book has never not been worth it.
It is easy to criticize stories about young people for elevating stakes to things that don’t feel at all important. But that’s what being young feels like. The ups and downs feel like life and death because they really, truly might as well be. For Esther, Daisy, and Susan, mid-term exams, romantic entanglements, and social awkwardness might as well be monsters and super-villains. With dialog that really flows, an art style that knows when and when not to take advantage of its innate cartoonishness, and the kind of story progression that earns universal appeal is going to make Giant Days well-remembered in the long run.
Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye was the best thing Marvel had going for it, but sadly, all good things have to come to an end. But wait! Jeff Lemire, the writer that coincidentally made DC’s archer, Green Arrow, super cool again, picked up where Fraction jumped off and kept the quality consistent. What makes Lemire’s version stand out is he pairs a very Fraction like adventure against some beautifully illustrated flashbacks to Barney (Clint’s brother) and Clint’s childhood as circus runaways training under eventual Avengers member, Swordsman. It adds a new layer of insecurity to Clint’s impulsive and hot-headed nature.
This series was one of the bigger surprises of the year. I wasn’t that familiar with the talent. The series didn’t come with any anticipation. But it ended up being really cool. It is about personal demons, not real ones. A 25-year old orphan finds out that he is the son of a cult leader, a leader who took advantage of most of his female followers. His life comes crashing down played in unison with his father’s creepiness 25 years previously. Now, the cult leader is looking for all his lost children, and the series is reaching a boiling point.
As a big fan of the movie, the original novel, and, generally, the author, I was torn on whether Fight Club 2 was a good idea. Fight Club isn’t exactly the kind of story that needs to be continued, and the fact that it was continuing in different medium than where it originated seemed kind of sketchy. Chuck Palahniuk is still steering the ship though, so there was hope that it could be good. It was so much better than I expected, and hopefully can capture a third cult following the way the movie captured a second one.
For those not in the know, Nailbiter centers on a town called Buckaroo, the hometown of a surprising amount of serial killers. It follows the efforts of a few FBI agents, the town sheriff, and one former serial killer to investigate what makes Buckaroo so special. Often times when a series dances around “answers” but doesn’t actually reveal anything, it is easy to really dislike it. That is an annoying plot device, but Nailbiter has somehow made it work for them. There is a level of tension they have been able to build by loose threads, sort of like The X-Files were able to do. Plus it carries with it a macabre whimsy, not unlike that of Nightmare Before Christmas. Less supernatural goings-on, but plenty of serial killers who are also creative costume makers.
I didn’t get the chance to read many graphic novels this year, but I really proved the old adage “If there’s just one book you read this year, it’s this one.” Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. It follows David Smith, a would-be artist who needs to get his life together. An opportunity comes his way when Death offers him a Faustian bargain. He doesn’t have to give up his soul, but he agrees to make his life a hell of a lot shorter for the ability to manipulate raw materials with his hand. Granite, wood, marble. He can mold it all like play-doh, but once he gets this ability, he earns himself a life worth living. Not one of fame and fortune, but one of legitimate feelings.