December 28, 2016

Top 10 comic books of 2016

2016 was a horror show year for celebrity deaths and international politics, but for what it is worth it was a sensational year for American comic books. A huge number of exceptional books were published over the past 12 months, which actually made whittling down my favourites to just a top ten about as difficult a task as it has ever been.

DC Comics really picked up their game in 2016 with the launch of Rebirth, a shift to fortnightly release on numerous key superhero books, and a tighter focus on characters and settings that the readership most wanted to see. Meanwhile Marvel struggled a little, releasing plenty of solid titles but staggering under the weight of delayed and generally invasive event miniseries like Secret Wars and Civil War II. What is most striking to me, however, is how despite the excellent books published by 'the big two', only one Marvel and one DC superhero universe book made it into my top ten. They may have done great work, but the independent publishers and creator-owned books were generally producing even better material. Like I said, 2016 was a sensational year for American comic books. Here are my personal favourites.

#10: The Fuse
Image. Written by Anthony Johnston. Art by Justin Greenwood.
The Fuse concluded this month, leaving behind four excellent collected editions of police procedural action on a space station. Half a million people live in 'the Fuse', a massive space station orbiting 22,000 kilometres above the Earth. The comic followed two police detectives investigating homicides on the station, each with its own science fiction-styled background, motive and technique. Anthony Johnston not only told generally crisp, well-plotted mysteries, he packed in intricate and well-considered science fiction detail. Justin Greenwood's artwork was a little stylised and cartoonish, but in a manner that emphasised the characters and presented a highly distinct view of the future.

#9: The Black Monday Murders
Image. Written by Jonathan Hickman. Art by Tomm Coker.
It was great to see Jonathan Hickman return to independent, creator-owned work, after spending so much time in recent years writing for Marvel. Here he has written a complex mixture of international banking, 20th century history and the occult. Grant Morrison's influence over Hickman's work remains clear, but with this book at least it does feel as if he's charted his own course: this is a dark, much more serious world than Morrison usually delivers, and it is a much strong book for it. The issues are also significantly longer than the average monthly comic book, and that gives the story a lot more room to breathe and flourish. I cannot wait to see how The Black Monday Murders develops in 2017.

#8: Ms Marvel
Marvel. Written by G. Willow Wilson. Art by Nico Leon, Adrian Alphonso, Takeshi Miyazawa and others.
Hands-down the very best superhero comic of 2016. Writer G. Willow Wilson has a fantastic ability to create a warm, likeable but more significantly fallible heroine. Kamala Khan is a phenomenal character to add to the Marvel Universe, and her adventures throughout the year have combined goofy comedy, teenage drama and old-fashioned superhero adventure. The inclusion of Kamala's Islamic background, religion and culture help to make the book feel distinct from its contemporaries. The artwork by a shifting roster of excellent expressive artists suits the material perfectly. Of Marvel's 2016 monthlies, it also felt like Ms Marvel was the only one to successfully navigate the publisher-enforced event tie-ins.


#7: Usagi Yojimbo
Dark Horse. Story and art by Stan Sakai.
Stan Sakai is an industry stalwart, having focused the bulk of his artistic talent and attention on his own character: the wandering samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo. This is the sort of book that is too easy to take for granted. Sakai is a genius at simple plotting and elegant, expressive artwork. His stories are consistently entertaining, drawing so many different ideas from such a simple set-up. The various anthropomorphic animals give the series an enormous amount of charm. His period detail is intricate and fascinating. For anyone ever thinking of trying to write or draw comic books, Sakai is a must-read.

#6: Joyride
Boom Studios. Written by Jackson Lanzing and Colin Kelly. Art by Marcus To.
Three kids steal a spaceship and travel the universe. Joyride was originally launched as a four-issue miniseries, but the reader response was so positive that it soon extended into an ongoing title. There is a sense of joy and wonder to the book that simply made it a wonderful read. The characters were likeable, the stories were imaginative, and it managed the enviable task of sneaking some real heartfelt drama and character development in when no one was expecting it. Marcus To's artwork was beautiful on this, creating expressive characters and eye-popping alien technologies and species.

#5: The Omega Men
DC Comics. Written by Tom King. Art by Barnaby Bagenda.
The DC Universe's best book of 2016 didn't feature Batman or the Justice League. Instead it told the story of a violent revolution on the other side of the galaxy, with a powerless Kyle Rayner being forced to decide just how far he was willing to go to defeat a despotic alien empire. Told via a series of Alan Moore-style fixed three-by-three panel grids, and featuring exceptional artwork by Barnaby Bagenda, The Omega Men took an old half-forgotten DC Comics concept and re-imagined it into something dark, challenging and apocalyptic. Top marks to DC for keeping the book in print despite low sales, so that Tom King could have room to properly finish his story.

#4: Darth Vader
Marvel. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Salvador Larroca.
Here's a thing: spin-off comic books simply are not supposed to be this good. You expect to see your favour movie characters doing their thing, sure, and maybe the odd thrilling adventure story or somesuch. What you do not expect is a thoughtful, considered and powerful 25-issue epic storyline that takes cinema's most famous villain and gives him his own emotional story arc. Gillen's story perfectly bridged the character's journey between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and simultaneously introduced a range of excellent original characters - four of whom have now graduated to their own ongoing monthly. He also managed to draw in key elements of the Star Wars prequels to finally gel together Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader as one singular, complex and tragic character. Best of all, Gillen knew where his story needed to end and Marvel actually let him end it. Salvador Larroca's artwork was the perfect choice for this book as well, giving the Dark Lord of the Sith the power and sense of menace that he received in the films. I'm not sure we're ever going to see a tie-in comic this good again.

#3: ODY-C
Image. Written by Matt Fraction. Art by Christian Ward.
Every page by Christian Ward feels like an artistic masterpiece. Normal panel structures go out of the window in his work on ODY-C, replaced by beautifully laid-out paintings of a kind not really seen since J.H. Williams III was illustrating Alan Moore's Promethea (a book to which ODY-C owes a tremendous debt). Beneath Ward's artwork lies a hugely imaginative story, adapting not only The Odyssey to science fiction comics, but also Sheherezade, Moby Dick and a bunch of other classical and mythological source texts. It is bleak, violent, graphic and weirdly idiosyncratic. The dialogue is related entirely in verse. One issue was even told via non-humorous limericks. Of all the comics I read in 2016, ODY-C was the most challenging - and as a result also the most rewarding.

#2: The Spire
Boom Studios. Written by Simon Spurrier. Art by Jeff Stokely.
Partly published in 2015, but completed this year, Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely's imaginative fantasy miniseries simply leaped off the page. Strong characters and a brilliant realised setting combined to make this one of the best fantasy comic books I have ever read. There were clear influences here: Moebius and French bandes dessinées, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, for example. Best of all was the series' plot: a murder mystery that expanded into a conspiracy thriller, weaving in elements of fantasy, drama, crime and even light horror. Now available in a collected paperback edition, The Spire is an absolute must-read.

#1: The Sheriff of Babylon
DC Vertigo. Written by Tom King. Art by Mitch Gerads.
Tom King is absolutely the stand-out writer of 2016. He is currently doing a great job as the writer for Batman, and before that he did sensational work on The Omega Men and reportedly The Vision too, which I have yet to read. His master work for the year, however, was The Sheriff of Babylon. A murder in post-invasion Baghdad leads an army contractor into a perilous world of terrorists, patriots, criminals and revolutionaries. It is a mature, hugely intelligent and morally grey story that does not take the sides one might expect, and does not lead to the conclusion most readers will have imagined. Mitch Gerads gritty, realistic art is perfectly matched, notably his clever and extraordinarily blunt use of sound effect captions. The panel layouts of this book are of a jaw-dropping quality. Each issue has been meticulously constructed to effectively surprise, shock and grip the reader, and it is all achieved with a remarkable simplicity. DC Vertigo hasn't published a book this good in years. It is such a surprising story to see told in the comic book medium. I haven't been this excited reading a comic book all year. I have become as angry and upset reading a comic all year. This is an absolute masterpiece.

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