It’s that time again, my dudes…
It’s a time of introspection and regrets, a time of promises and plans, a time of endings and a time of beginnings. Most of all, it is a time of random lists ranking the arbitrarily determined quality of pop culture ephemeral. Y’see, ancient laws decreed long ago that when the holiday fires are but slowly fading embers, and the winter darkness covers the land, then the Nerds of All Nations must gather and debate the worthiness of their weird passions with the fiery (but completely subjective) intensity of a thousand burning suns. For it is written, only once these rankings are completed shall the previous year truly be laid to rest, and only then are the nerds free to go forth, out into the wild, wind-swept hinterlands of the Internet, renewed, and ready for the great Flame Wars to come.
Welcome to my Arena.
I usually do these kinds of things over on my personal page, where I’ve got more of an established history.
I mention this as a sort of introduction. Over on my personal page—if pressed—I’m sure the first thing both of my long-time readers would no doubt attest to is the fact that I have a slight but well-known affinity towards comic books. It’s true. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that in my house, Wednesday is known as New Comic Book Day (Screw you, Odin).
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the sweet, sweet, loving embrace that is New Comic Day, right? If not, my friends, you should try it. It’s easy. Just swing on down to the ol’ LCS—that’s the cool kids’ way of saying Local Comic Shop—and pick something up… on a Wednesday.
And wah-lah! Welcome to the Club!
It’s a good club to belong to, too. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s creative, and except for a healthy portion of the general fanbase, everyone is pretty nice and not creepy at all. The point is, there really is a comic book out there for everyone, and despite what my list today might otherwise lead you to believe, it’s not all capes and punching either, so don’t be afraid to explore. I mean, it’s not like sequential art is one of our oldest forms of storytelling stretching all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings, not to put the burden of guilt and the not so insignificant weight of history and human tradition upon your unfamiliar shoulders, but whatever…
What follows here today are ten titles I believe to be smart, funny, creative, cool, well written and even better drawn. Plus, some of them are also important to the overall health and well-being of the comic book industry. Some of these books, just by existing, are helping bring some desperately needed diversity and change to an industry that has been long swamped in tired-out tropes, stagnant story repetitions, and the kind of ugly institutionalized douchebaggery that is more often than not firmly rooted in basic racism and sexism, and all while being really well done stories too.
Simply put, they’re good books, Bront.
I’ll admit it, this year my list is pretty superhero and Image comics heavy, but in my defense, this year has also been a year of terrible reality, the kind where I’ve often found myself unsure whether to laugh or cry or shit or scream, so you’ll forgive me a bit of blatant escapism as the world falls apart around us, right? If not, up yours.
Enough small talk! Let’s do this!
10. Secret Weapons
I’ve been keeping half an eye on Valiant Comics for awhile now. I remember when they first became a big thing, way back during the early Image days, a time when every book seemed to have “blood” in the title somehow. I wasn’t interested in them then, despite good reviews. They all felt a little derivative, and I really wasn’t a fan of the general designs or costumes of the whole universe. Then, a few years ago, Valiant made a big relaunch effort, updating all of their titles and bringing a lot of interesting creators on board, basically starting over from scratch with their old characters. A great jumping-on point, right? Well, I missed the boat then too, and by the time the good reviews started to appear, there were too many titles that had gone on for too long, and I wasn’t sure how or where to start, even if I had had the money to burn.
Then they started to advertise this whole “Stalinverse” idea, a story line where someone changes something in the past and the future is now ruled by Soviet Russia, with all of the heroes appropriately changed. I love that shit. Alternate Universes? Portal Fiction? Heist stories where the old crew gets back together for one last ride? Things are the things that get my attention. Plus, Matt Kindt is the lead writer? I’m definitely interested now. So, it was while exploring ways to get into this universe that I discovered Secret Weapons.
I mean, look at that cover.
The basic idea is there was this Charles Xavier School type of place, and eventually all of the awesome people with awesome powers graduated, and went off to do whatever awesome stuff the main story in some other title is concerned with, and all that’s left now are the duds and wannabes.
That’s the main characters of this book, with their dumb and kind of useless powers.
Enter Livewire, a young woman, a gifted technopath, and an experienced hero. She’s on the trail of a killer who is cutting a bloody swath through these cast-offs. In order to protect them, she gathers as many as she can find—a young woman who can talk to birds, a guy who can make himself into a statue, a guy who can make inanimate objects glow slightly, and a guy who can conjure random objects out of thin air—and they form an unlikely team.
It’s a very X-Men type book, for sure, but the lack of X-Men continuity baggage really helps. Also, Raul Allen‘s art is great, and… oh yeah… it was written by the screenwriter of Arrival, Eric Heisserer, so it’s got that going for it too. Of course, he also wrote the prequel to The Thing, but y’know what? We’re not going to hold that against him. In the end, Secret Weapons an all-around good book. It’s good looking, with a diverse cast of characters and, being only four issues long, fun and focused too. In fact, one of my only complaints would be that it’s so short. I’m interested in more. I’m waiting for more. Luckily, it looks like there will be some spin-off titles maybe, so fingers crossed.
My only other complaint? It’s a small nit really, but… these characters are genetically manipulated, I think, to get their powers. Or maybe they had latent genes “activated” kind of like in Stormwatch. But either way, how would conjuring random objects out of thin air be a suppressed gene? I ask this with the full knowledge that I apparently have no issue with the “talk to birds” latent gene.
A lot of people have a problem with Mark Millar. This is completely valid. I get it. I’m one of those people, in fact. I stopped buying his stuff around KICKASS 2. He has a long history of being shitty and gross, and overly-sensational, and he uses rape as a plot point in basically every story he writes.
Or at least, he did.
I read somewhere that Man of Steel was the spark, that he was shocked to see his name lumped in with the toxic, unaware culture that led to that wrong-headed failure of a film, and ended up re-evaluating the type of stuff he was putting out there. I haven’t been able to re-find that article though, so who knows… maybe I dreamed it. Either way, he hasn’t been doing any of that garbage for awhile. Huck, Reborn, Starlight, MPH, Supercrooks, Empress, Chrononauts. No rape. Low bar, I know, but seriously, these are all stories where he had more than a few opportunities to fall back on his old tricks, and he didn’t. I mean, if you’re still not interested in his stuff, that’s cool. I understand. I’m just saying, the guy seems to have turned over a new leaf.
Anyway, here’s Jupiter’s Legacy.
I think it’s fair to say that this book is to the Superfriends what the Ultimates were to the Avengers. Kind of. Set in a world where the Allies were losing World War II until a group of adventurers found a skull island-like place where an alien gave them superpowers, which allowed them to become a sort of Golden Age-ish Justice League type team, the story of the first volume of Jupiter’s Legacy starts in the twilight of those heroes’ careers. The classic era of gaudily-dressed heroes and villains clashing in the skies above is now over, mostly because pretty much all of the villains are now in jail, and The Utopian (The Superman type guy) forbids the rest of the hero community from interfering in the otherwise every day, mundane problems of the greater world.
As a result, there isn’t much to do. The older heroes are settling into a well-deserved retirement, but the new generation, especially the children of the originals, are restless and bored, hungry for fame and way too powerful. This imbalance leads to an uprising—a bloody, bloody super-powered uprising. Heroes die. Histories are explored. Fascist super-powered world-controlling governments take control. The super power community fractures. Resistance forces gather. Revolutions are planned. And finally, this last volume that just finished this year comes out, and it is all about the big battle.
Which means Frank Quitely gets to show off how awesome he is even more than usual.
This is a very satisfying end to a long superhero story, a mix of old and new comic book tropes with a healthy dash of somewhat familiar deconstruction. This book isn’t reinventing the wheel or anything. Instead it’s taking an old familiar car out for a hell of a good ride.
And there might be room for more in the future…
8. Black Cloud
Black Cloud is a story about stories. It’s a story of ancient Gods, of destinies and dreams, and of a revolutionary’s failed battle for control of the heavens. It’s the story of when the time comes around to wage that battle once again.
Black Cloud is an odd book. The art is fantastic. Its use of color is brilliant. The writing is often funny and endearing, and also exciting and interesting, but mostly, it’s a little confusing.
As far as I can tell, it goes like this: Zelda is a street kid in NYC who gets by on scams and thefts and selling drugs to rich kids slumming it in the downtown clubs. But Zelda also harbors a secret… she’s on the run, hiding out from something, so she keeps low, off the radar. She also fixes problems for people behind the scenes. She makes things disappear for money, so when a red hat-wearing politician pays her to hide his son, just until after the election she accepts. Which brings us to Zelda’s second secret.
She can transport to another world.
Is it Heaven? Is it the Home of the Gods? Is it some kind of dream space? It’s hard to tell. And what hunts her whenever the rains appear? What eventually becomes apparent is that at some point in the distant past, Zelda led a revolution against the old Gods/the Ancients/some kind of King Dreams, and she lost. Also, the politician’s son? She lost him too, somewhere in the Dream World, which means, back in New York, that red-hatted politician is trying to kill her as well. Is that what she’s running from, a life of continual problems? Or is she running from her destiny, from old enemies who still want her head, or from her former compatriots, who want her to take up the fight again? And why do some places in the Dream World go mostly gray, with only a few things appearing in brilliant color?
Like I said, it’s hard to tell, but I do enjoy following the clues and piecing it all together. Sometimes murky and interesting is better than comfortably familiar and old hat.
Grant McKay and his Anarchist League of Scientists created a device that can travel through dimensions. On the very first try, the device misfired and McKay, his team, and his visiting children were flung off, tumbling across the multiverse.
Now, they are lost and trying to get back home.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the old TV show Voyagers. It is a well-known fact, people. Well known. I love the constant upheaval and new settings and goals. The potential of the narrative freedom is really appealing to me. As a result, I love this book too. It falls squarely into my wheelhouse, but with the added bonus of alternate versions of characters, superpowers, super science, millipede-people Death Cults, and even the occasional giant, homicidal, purple muppet demon.
It’s been a few years now—and I think it’s been on my Top Ten list every year—and the series is finally pointing downhill, kicking off the brakes, and racing toward it’s conclusion. Grant McKay, and the battered few Anarchist Scientists now left, have found their way back to their home dimension, and all the chickens have come home to roost, people. All of them, and the Earth is doomed. The possessed armies of ravaged dimensions McKay and the others have left in their wake have all followed them home. The aforementioned millipede-people Death Cult has too. And then there’s Har’logh, the Defiler…
Shit’s goin’ crazy, is what I’m trying to say…
Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the art, at least at first, but it kind of grew on me. Other than that, I have nothing but love for Black Science. It’s a big, pulpy, imaginative, swashbuckling, old school adventure that always does the unexpected. It’s not afraid to kill off characters. It’s not afraid to give the heroes flaws. It’s constantly in motion, propelling itself ever forward into new situations, new dangers, and yet still takes its time to properly tell its story too. It’s smart and well-written, and now, as we are heading into the ending, it’s all feeling very satisfying as old loose ends are getting tied up, and tied down, and maybe blown to bits, and that’s the main reason why I’m including this book this year. It’s one thing to think up a good hook, it’s another to create a fun and interesting adventure populated with characters you want to follow, but it’s something else entirely to bring them all home and (hopefully) stick the landing.
What is there left to say about Saga at this point?
Saga is an epic space opera about two young lovers—Alana and Marko—who are from opposite sides of an intergalactic war. One of them has wings, and the other has horns. Both of them are generally kind of fuck-ups, and now they’re also brand new parents. The baby, Hazel, an illegal half-breed regarded as an abomination, narrates the story. This new family has gone AWOL from their respective armies and are on the run, ducking authorities from both sides, as well as a robot royal class who have TVs for heads, plus more than a few bounty hunters, some reporters, and even their own parents. Artist Fiona Staples (whose art I love) and Writer Brian K. Vaughn (who for a brief time made the TV show Lost not stupid) have created an original and funny, ridiculously imaginative and frankly awesome story with a surprising and regular social relevance. If you claim to be a comic fan, but whine incessantly about superheroes, well then, here’s a fantastic alternative.
In a nutshell: Saga was good when it started. It’s been good since then. It’s still good now.
Injection has very quietly been one of the best books out there for awhile now.
The fact that it’s written by Warren Ellis, with art by Declan Shalvey (a pair who all-timed it on their all-too-short run of Moon Knight) should tell you all you need to know. The only reason it’s not the best book on my list is that it doesn’t come out nearly often enough.
Injection is about how, a few years ago, five odd and brilliant people who were brought together to think about the future of humanity. The group decided to act on their ideas by creating an unusual AI out of technology and shamanistic magic, and then unleashing it into the world. This didn’t turn out to be such a good idea, as the AI has re-emerged, and the five are brought back together to deal with the fall-out.
Imagine if James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Bernard Quartermass, Lisbeth Salander, and John Constantine were a loosely-affiliated team, and you’re close. Then add in Shalvey’s fantastic art and Jordie Bellaire’s incredible colors. Plus, you get the added bonus that each story arc is basically stand-alone. Each one is a separate weird adventure under the “Injection Umbrella”. One is a weird sci-fi alien infestation. Another is a magical fairy ring/extra-dimensional portal story. Another is a murder mystery crime story. Another is an espionage-tinged shoot-out. This book is Ellis getting to write out whatever small demon is poking at him, so the potential for awesome and weird is incredible. In a nutshell, it’s a smart, agile little book that is probably one of the best arguments out there for the destruction of the “never-ending serial” model in favor of its “each story arc is written for trades” model.
But mostly, for me, it’s the closest thing to Planetary that Ellis has done in awhile, so I’m in for the long haul.
You want to know the truth? I can’t stand the New Gods. I’m just… not into them. So I have no affinity for them, and except for Big Barda, I don’t have any favorite characters. To me, they’re the Inhumans of the DC Universe, better as bit players in someone else’s story. Basically, if you trot these characters out and nine times out of ten, my eyes glaze over.
But add Tom King, and suddenly we have that tenth time.
Falling somewhere between his runs on Vision and The Omega Men, this book is in a sweet spot where King can really do what he does best, which is turn a character inside out, put them through the ringer, and then rebuild them. Mired in conflict, and more than a little weird, it’s hard to say exactly what Mister Miracle is about, other than Scott Free, aka Mister Miracle, the greatest escape artist to ever live, and husband to Big Barda, is caught in some kind of trap, and it’s killing him. What kind of trap? Why? And will he escape?
Well, that’s the story, right?
Like a couple of titles on this list, Mister Miracle is new, with only has a few issues out, and it’s keeping its narrative close. So, it’s another one where I can’t quite tell you what’s going on, but I’m really enjoying finding out.
3. Paper Girls
Like Saga, you’ve probably heard of Paper Girls by now.
If not, like Saga, this is written by Brian K. Vaughn (the guy who for a brief time made the TV show Lost not stupid), but this time with Cliff Chiang’s fantastic art (and it really is fantastic). Paper Girls is the story of four friends from the 80s who go out on their morning paper routes and end up smack dab in the middle of a temporal war.
There are many reasons to love this book. It is boldly inventive and boldly colored. The characters speak with real voices and have real flaws. It’s funny and touching and completely unpredictable, but the best part, at least for me, is the mystery. Paper Girls flings our four heroines directly into some weird shit, that only gets weirder as they go, and the explanations they get—if they’re even in English—often make no sense. There’s obviously factions in this war, but who they are and why they’re fighting, and what all of it means to the girls is unclear. It’s only as they stumble forwards and backwards in time, caught in the ebbs and flows of this Temporal War, do things slowly become clearer, and that kind of tight, purposeful writing is really a joy to read.
Honestly, reading Paper Girls feels like the best type of Amblin movie on an unlimited budget. You want giant robots? No problem. You want kids meeting their adult selves and both versions being shocked at how they look? Done. You want cavemen in space helmets, or knights in shining armor riding pteranodon-like creatures? There’s some of those too, and more. Sometimes, even giant tardigrades fight among the city skyline.
Plus, there’s four awesome girls on BMX bikes. What more do you need?
The Legend goes like this…
Back in the early 90s, seven big time comic book creators—Jim Lee, Todd MacFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio—all decided to leave Marvel and strike out on their own. Image Comics was formed, with an eye on doing something new and different, and with its feet placed firmly in creator controlled properties. This upstart publisher defied the odds and really shook the pillars of Comics’ Heaven. They brought about a lot of good change to the industry, from payment, to ownership, to paper stock, to coloring techniques, on and on, but they also continued the tradition of swimsuit issues, and in the end, proved that artists aren’t necessarily writers. Shit got dark, man. By the late 90s, a lot of their titles lay fallow.
I mean, who would’ve thought a bunch of cheap X-Men knock-offs wouldn’t have had much gas?
Well, that’s when Warren Ellis came along, and was allowed to do pretty much whatever he wanted. His work cleaning up Stormwatch turned a DOA title into something interesting, which led to The Authority, a title which changed the industry, which basically resulted in The Ultimates, a series that changed Marvel, which is pretty much how we got to the initial look and feel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of young careers, and a lot of new styles really exploded due to people having free rein in the graveyard of pale imitation characters that populated Jim Lee’s part of Image comics, known as Wildstorm Comics. This windfall led to Jim Lee selling Wildstorm to DC Comics, and he made a butt-load of money off the deal too, as in “I saw a picture of him riding an elephant at the celebration” butt-load of money, and good for him too, because if anyone has a dated style at this point, it’s Jim Lee.
Anyway, over the years DC has tried to integrate the various Wildstorm characters into its regular stable, and for the most part, it was a terrible failure. They also tried making the whole line into a post-apocalyptic superhero line, which I thought was super ballsy and maybe had some potential, but, well… the less said about that effort, the better.
In a moment of sudden clarity, DC did the only thing that ever worked.
Warren Ellis is back. Returned to a separate universe again, the result is a 24 issue run where Ellis takes the best traits of the original characters, keeps them recognizable, but merges them into a very William Gibson-esque, day-after-tomorrow, bleeding-edge tech kind of setting where Corporations and Spy Agencies secretly battle for control of the world’s information using super-powered hit men, highly-trained spec ops teams, and frighteningly insightful geniuses. And all while aliens hide among us. With only 7 or 8 issues out, it is hands down the best example out there of the “realistic superheroes in a realistic setting” genre, and all without being stupid and obnoxious and embarrassed to be about superheroes. It’s everything Ellis does well, turned up, while Jon Davis-Hunt’s art is reminiscent of the best of the 90s, but with today’s sensibilities.
It’s a hell of a book. Deathblow is still pretty boring, of course, but… whatta ya’ gonna do?
These two books go together. They’re the same story.
Black Hammer hooked me right away. It was the story of a half dozen Golden Age heroes—Abraham Slam, Golden Gail, Madame Dragonfly, Colonel Weird and his robot sidekick Talkie Walkie, Barbalien the Martian Warlord, and The Black Hammer, of course—who, after defeating a Crisis on Infinite Earths-type bad guy known as the Anti-God, found themselves trapped on a farm in small town that they can’t leave. Where they are, how they got there, and why, is the mystery.
This isn’t a big punchfest book. It’s a pot boiler, slow and purposeful. It’s a mystery. There’s flashbacks, of course, but it’s mostly a big “relationship” comic at first. It’s been ten years since the heroes found themselves on this farm, and most of them are resigned to their fate, so at first it’s lots of lonely and angry, aging superheroes having regrets, and trying to make and keep connections between each other while they cope with life in their weird prison. But dark currents swirl still around them, death and betrayal lurk close by, especially as one of their own decides to begin re-investigating their cage. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Lucy Weber, the daughter of The Black Hammer, refuses to accept that her father is dead, even after ten years, and continues to look for him.
Which is what Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil is about. Lucy is a reporter, and so she’s tracking down leads. If you can’t find the heroes, then maybe you should start by asking their villains. So Lucy searches out such black-hearted evil-doers like Cthu-Lou, the Metal Minotaur, and Manaconda, on her hunt for the deadliest one of all, the undead supergenius ghoul, Sherlock Frankenstein.
But nobody’s seen him in years either…
Like all good stories, this isn’t just a well-done mystery, it’s an homage to classic comics and the tropes that make up the very foundation these silly little caped universes are built upon. And while it does have humorous moments, and the characters are inherently silly, they’re not played for laughs. There is a quiet dignity to their pain and loneliness reminiscent of The Wild Bunch. Not the blood, of course, but the resignation. All of these characters are recognizable archetypes of characters we know and love, but reduced to their most basic and most human versions. These are characters that were all legends once, and now they’re forced to be nothing. The drama of watching them deal with that reality, especially as these feelings are woven into greater, more dangerous events that are starting to happen around them, is fantastic.
Which isn’t to say that it’s not exciting. There’s murder and horror and betrayal and dark magic. Crazy stuff is happening. Where are the heroes? Who is keeping them there, and why? Where is Sherlock Frankenstein? And where is the Black Hammer? I can’t wait to find out.
And that’s it. Those are the best comics of 2017.