December 24, 2015

The Pull List: Best Science Fiction Comics of 2015

Science fiction is a genre that, in recent years, has really exploded in popularity in American comic books. It used to be you would struggle to find just one or two books - even then they would more often than not be a Star Wars tie-in or a Marvel or DC Universe title. Now there are plenty on sale from numerous publishers both major and independent.

I'm not outrageously surprised. Science fiction is a great fit for a visual medium like comic books. The limits of the stories are pretty much the limits of what an artist is capable of drawing. The French have been producing outstanding science fiction graphic albums for decades, of course, so it is no surprise to see quite a few American books in recent years emulate the French style of art and story.

As a science fiction fan first and foremost, I have to say this burst of comic books in my favourite genre has been delightful to see. Some of my absolute favourite books of the year in any genre can be found in this list. Let's start with a few runners-up.

The Omega Men
DC Comics. Written by Tom King. Art by Barnaby Bagenda.
A bit of a sales disaster for DC Comics, The Omega Men is nonetheless an outstanding science fiction comic. Tom King is telling a morally grey story about terrorists and totalitarian governments with a rich background of alien species and cultures. He has also neatly slipped in former Green Lantern Kyle Rayner into the story, giving it all a relevance to the DC Universe in general. Barnaby Bagenda's artwork, presented without inks, has the exact sort of lush, French looking to which I referred above, while the neat nine-panel grid brings back memories of the glory days of Legion of Superheroes back in the late 1980s. This series is tapping out at 12 issues, but it was great to see DC give it a chance at all.

Legendary. Written by Grant Morrison. Art by Frazer Irving.
Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving wrapped up this six issue miniseries this year, and managed to make it the best comic Morrison has written in years. Annihilator follows a cancer-afflicted screenwriter who is being tormented by the protagonist of his final script, an avant-garde science fiction film. The ideas were remarkable, but it was Irving's rich and painterly artwork that sold the deal. Few comics in 2015 were this beautiful to look at, and few were as wonderfully and maddeningly strange.

Image. Written by Jay Faerber. Art by Scott Godlewski.
It's nice to see that it's possible to do a space western with a bit more western and a little less space. Until now it's felt like Firefly has had that corner of pop culture all to itself. Copperhead has worked a really solid niche, combining strong and engaging characters with brilliantly adapted genre stereotypes. The result is something that's both traditional and fresh. Faerber has been writing a great story, and Godlewski has been illustrating it well. A real star is colourist Ron Riley, who's deliberately pale, faded tones give the whole book a wonderfully sun-bleached look.

Southern Cross
Image. Written by Becky Cloonan. Art by Andy Belanger.
With Southern Cross Becky Cloonan has written a rock-solid science fiction horror hybrid, following a woman's mission to solve her sister's mysterious death on a freighter running from Earth to Titan. This book boasts a strong protagonist, some wonderful Lovecraft-esque horror, an evocative setting, and a very surprise ending - I honestly had this book pegged for ending at six issues, but it's due to continue in 2016, going beyond the point where this sort of story usually stops. Andy Belangor's artwork is well matched, with deep, spark inks giving the book a very distinctive and memorable look.

Image. Written by Brian K. Vaughn. Art by Fiona Staples.
Saga's quality has risen and fallen over the past four years or so. Last year it stumbled a bit, but managed to recover its footing by the end. Even with the fluctuating quality, at its worst Saga is one of the best books on the shelves, mixing memorable characters and strong dialogue with a twisting plot and shocking, confrontational moments that keep sliding right to the edge of self-parody. Fiona Staples' colourful artwork remains divine, focusing on the characters rather than the technology. It helps make this a very emotional experience to read.

#3: Darth Vader
Marvel. Written by Keiron Gillen. Art by Salvador Larroca.
The weird thing about Darth Vader is just how good this book is for a movie tie-in. There's a general expectation of what you get with this sort of comic: the characters you like from the original text, some fairly enjoyable but ultimately derivative storylines, and nothin that's going to make waves or change how we might read or view the source. Darth Vader isn't doing that. It's got a supporting cast of great and funny characters, including two wonderfully deranged assassin droids. It is using Vader himself quite sparingly, with writer Keiron Gillen clearly understanding that the less Vader says the more frightening he becomes. It is also hitting a lot of unexpectedly strong story beats between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, notably Vader realising that the pilot who destroyed the Death Star is also his son. That one really made an impact: it turned the comic from a typical tie-in throwaway to a genuinely worthwhile extension of the Star Wars trilogy. Salvador Larroca's artwork has been great, giving the whole thing a suitable grand, widescreen aesthetic.

#2: The Fuse
Image. Written by Antony Johnston. Art by Justin Greenwood.
In 2014 The Fuse was my favourite comic book of the year. That it is in second place this year is no reflection of a drop in quality, simply that the bar has been raised a little higher. This is a pitch-perfect comic, presenting a police procedural onboard a giant space station orbiting the Earth. Each story arc has presented that station - the titular Fuse - from different angles, with crimes in different corners of the tightly packed, fractious society. Antony Johnston's world building is exceptional - no surprise to anybody read his long-running comic Wasteland - and he has been strategically drip-feeding it via the stories for two years now. Justin Greenwood's artwork is beautifully stylised and slightly exaggerated. It's distinctive and effective. Quite why this book is being overlooked by so many SF fans is beyond me: it deserves a wider audience.

#1: ODY-C
Image. Written by Matt Fraction. Art by Christian Ward.
This book is, I suspect, a highly acquired taste. It will not be for all readers. It is strange, literate, metatextual and occasionally confronting. It is a retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, gender-swapped to populate Odysseus' ship and the heavens with women. It is violent, creepy, and overtly sexual. Its panel layouts are bold and visually arresting. It is insanely colourful. Fraction's extensive descriptive texts are in verse. What's more, as it has progressed its inspiration has expanded in odd and surprising ways: a bit of the One Thousand and One Nights here, a bit of Moby Dick there. ODY-C is sometimes a challenge to read, but the bottom line is that there isn't a more original or striking science fiction comic book on the shelves. I think this might be my favourite comic book of any genre for the whole of 2015.

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