Ahh… 2015, another fantastic year for comics. I read a lot of comics this year, mostly indie or creator-owned, not a dud amongst them (though there were a few I stopped following after having done so for some time. Budget cuts). The only book I felt at all disappointed in was Sandman: Overture, which despite breathtaking art by JH Williams III, had a story that felt as though it’d been conceived with a glass to the wall of the office where Marvel’s Secret Wars was being spit-balled. I can’t say this enough: going forward, no more universe-ending apocalypse cataclysms for me. Can’t do it. Sick of ‘em. Especially in Sandman, a book that in its previous incarnation was purely character driven. To see Morpheus tasked with saving the Universe was, well, more disappointing than I can possibly describe. Are apocalypse stories Zeitgeist? Doesn’t matter.
So diatribe aside, let’s get to the good stuff. Not just good, but the best. These are the best comics I read in 2015.
NOTE: I’ll start by removing the two long distance runners from the picture so as to ease the grading curve. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and David Lapham’s Stray Bullets are and most likely always will be the best books I read every month. There’s never been a drop-off in quality and in fact, both just seem to get better with each passing issue. So where does that end? I don’t think it ever will for either, thus you see why I’m taking them off the list. It’s the same thing I do when someone asks me my favorite Coen Brothers movie – I simply address Lebowski’s awesomeness at the outset and then answer the question from the remainder of their oeuvre*.
Southern Cross – I picked up issue #1 of Becky Cloonan, Andy Belanger and Lee Loughridge’s Sci Fi Haunting and almost didn’t come back for the second. Not because I didn’t like it or think it had promise, but I just didn’t think it was going to be a book I had to read, especially when a lot of this year has been about streamlining the ever-growing pull list at The Comic Bug into something a little more… manageable. Thus, one issue of Southern Cross and I passed issue two on the shelves for a few weeks before I bumped into Richard Starkings at the shop one week and he convinced me to give the book another shot.
When the writer of a book as good as Elephantmen suggests you read something, you read it.
And Mr. Starkings was right. What I found by the end Southern Cross #2 was not only that I was hooked, but the air of claustrophobia that Cloonan, Belanger and Loughridge create in the space where their individual contributions coalesce spills over the pages and seeps into your brain. With each successive issue of this book there is a lingering feeling of dread and paranoid that, for me, kinda follows me for a time after I put it down. I LOVE when a story can do that.
Southern Cross is an almost Twin Peaks-esque mystery that takes place in Outer Space instead of the Pacific Northwest. The catalyst is a young girl’s death and the events that spiral out from that unfold entirely aboard an enormous space freighter that, despite its size and very much like the aforementioned fictional town, still isn’t big enough to keep everyone aboard from knowing each other’s business. What’s more, everybody’s business is filled with secrets; none of them good, some of them deadly, all of them fascinating cogs in a wheel that spins further and further into uncharted territory. This is a creepy, creepy book and I can’t recommend it enough.
Airboy – People say Meta is dead but I completely disagree. Cynical, wink-wink nudge-nudge Meta may have reached a point from which all else is tributary (after Cabin in the Woods perhaps?), however, when it is done passionately and from a vulnerable, honest place I would argue that Meta-fiction is still valid and refreshing. What’s more it just might be my personal favorite voice in Literature. And maybe nothing I’ve ever read before comes anywhere near the honest vulnerability of James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s AirBoy. I mean, wow! The book’s not about Airboy, it’s about Robinson being hired by Image to write an Airboy reboot and then coming to terms with his real or self-imposed shortcomings as a writer. And his drug use. And his drinking. And the general mess he’s made of his life. This book packs a similar punch to the Gonzo stylings of Hunter S. Thompson, but it also has the most heartfelt self realizations in it I’ve ever seen, so that one moment Robinson and Hinkle thrill you with their debauchery and the next jerk tears straight from your ducts.
Oh, and there’s robo nazi armor too. Real awesome mech stuff, like something Mignola would draw.
Casefile: Arkham – this is an indie book that was sent to Drinking w/ Comics some time ago, and as my life spun out of control for a few months I just never found the right time to start reading it. Until one day about a week ago when I sat down and read the first 2/3 in a single sitting. It was at that point that Casefile: Arkham shot to the upper tier of the books I read in 2015.
Taking as its cellular structure both the compositional DNA of old pulp Crime Noirs and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, this book is a tonal achievement the likes of which is staggering, especially when you consider the elegant simplicity and relative ease with which creators Josh Finny and Patrick McEvoy find the overlap between the dark, rain-soaked alleys of Noir and the darker, blood-streaked monoliths of Lovecraft.
If you’re familiar with either genre you’ll realize almost immediately that there’s plenty of room for overlap, however it’s not just the overlap that makes this such an awesome read. It’s also the way the Finney and McEvoy use H.P.L. characters to populate a Noir world: Widowed millionaire May Derleth hires WWII vet Henry Flynn to find vanished artist Richard Pickman. Flynn’s PTSD is based on the horrors he saw in the war-torn South Pacific and now back in the states, with a head full of shrapnel and haunted by nightmares that threaten his sanity, he’s looking for anything to pay the bills and keep him occupied. Derleth’s case does both at first, but soon begins to lead Flynn into strange territory. I don’t want to give much more away, let’s just suffice it to say that the mark of any great story is its inevitability and Casefile: Arkham‘s inevitability is evident from the jump. Its use of classic Noir tropes and plot twists to subsequently plunge into Lovecraft-sized horror proves the two genres were meant to go together from the start. Lovecraft himself knew this to one degree or another – look at Inspector Legrasse’s narrative in seminal The Call of Cthuhu for proof of that. And what Finney and McEvoy do here is several steps further along that path. The use of the psychological darkness of Noir to flip the story on its back and reveal the chitinous fibers of horror underneath is an absolute joy for both Noir and H.P.L. fan alike.
Big Man Plans – You’ve heard of Blacksploitation? Or Nunsploitation? Well, welcome to Shortsploitation folks, courtesy of the sick-ass imaginations of Eric Powell and Tim Weisch. Our protagonist is not a hero to anyone other than himself; after a life-time of eating shit at the hands of the kind of bastards that would take advantage of, dismiss or threaten a man based on something as superficial as his size, Big Man comes back for the bloodiest damn revenge I’ve ever seen in a comic – maybe even in a film for that matter. This is a hardcore, grindhouse revenge flick from the 70s transformed into an absolutely insane book that, well, will kind of make you sick at times. Especially when you see what Big Man does to the flesh and blood of those who have wronged him. I’m usually fairly adverse to this type of violence, however, I’m not sure exactly how they did it, but Powell and Weisch had me anxiously awaiting each new issue, eager to see what kind of hell they would raise next. And they never disappointed; Big Man Plans is absolutely stunning in its audacity and – dare I say it – no short order on having a good time.
Nameless – Grant Morrison will always be one of my favorite creators in fiction. Period. Yet 2015 continued the trend I began last year, the trend where I’ve stopped buying everything Morrison creates. Oh, I’ll own it all eventually, but there’s been so many other great books and some of GM’s stuff just doesn’t read as good monthly as it does all in one sitting, in a beautiful hardbound volume. That said, if there’s one book I wait feverishly for, a periodical tome that feels like a glorious return to form for Morrison, it’s Nameless. Having a kinship with my two favorite GM pieces – The Invisibles and The Filth – Nameless is chock full o’ more occult goodies than anything GM’s done in years. I dedicated a handful of columns under the moniker Beneath the Panels to annotating a lot of that information – and got into a bit of psychic trouble because of it. Nameless reminded me of the thrill of first encountering the idea of Chaos Magick in Morrison’s early work and the hours of research into tangental ideas as a result. And low and behold, GM packs a lot of the topics of that research into Nameless, chief among them the Enochian Alphabet, in my mind a perfect catalyst for a dripping, dark horror story the likes of which could give ol’ H.P.L. a run for his money.
Like Southern Cross, Nameless uses the grandeur of space as its setting, but here artist Chris Burnham helps Morrison seamlessly juxtapose the isolatory horrors of outer space with the slithering madness of humanity’s inner space. This microcosm/macrocosm makes for a mind-bending read. And even though there is an apocalyptic overtone to Nameless and I did just get done saying “No more apocalypses!”, in Nameless the apocalypse isn’t going to be avoided by combining superpowers at the last minute, or by magical dream cats. Here the characters up against the Nameless Alien Entities set to destroy humanity are really only going to make things worse.
The way it really would be.
We Can Never Go Home – My favorite of the year, this book affected me in a dynamic, guttural way. There’s some huge questions on violence and responsibility here – so much so there’s an excellent essay in the back of the hardcover by co-author Matthew Rosenberg – but no easy answers. Which makes for a book that leaves you feeling uneasy and kind of unsatisfied at the end. But not unsatisfied in a bad way, more in a Cormac McCarthy way. Because of this unease We Can Never Go Home feels truly timely. In an ocean of Superhero Spectacle Culture, where super powers always save the day, Rosenberg, along with co-author Patrick Kindlon and artist Josh Hood, give us a frankly brutal take on super powers; one where they only seem to make things worse. This feels infinitely more endearing and relatable than any other super powered book I know of, despite my love of many of them. We Can Never Go Home explores what it might be like if super powers actually manifested in our world, especially if they manifested in teenagers. There’s a heartfelt Us vs. The World vibe as Duncan and Madison peel back the flesh of the lives they were born into and dive straight into the dark underbelly beneath. There’s also a wonderful sexual tension that keeps you as the reader as uneasy as it does the characters.
Top to bottom Ashcan Press and Black Mask Comics did a first-rate job with this book. Not only were the single issues great – best example of incentive covers I’ve ever seen (iconic albums from the era of the story, re-imagined with our characters? Hot damn I’ve never bought a variant on ebay before but ladies and gentlemen, that has changed!) – but the Hardcover came out the same day as issue #5 and was only available in independent comic shops. What? YES! This is what comics are all about to me: Community! And to see creators and a what’s more a publisher willing to take the loss of not distributing a $25 book to big box stores and internet giants not only made me a fan of this book, but Black Mask Comics in general. Black Mask is coming up fast, and a book like We Can Never Go Home – as great and widely recognized as it is – is only going to create exponential traction for them in 2016. And that’s a very good thing.
Addendum: I would also very much like to point out a book that, while it was actually published late 2014, became one of the most important comics I have ever read in my life. This is a book that, in part, defined 2015 for me.
Elephantmen #59 was a brilliant tangent nestled within the heart of the Red Queen storyline, itself an important chapter in the evolution of Mappo’s former war experiments, now integrated into the world at large. I previously spoke of my love of Elephantmen about this time last year. It’s a book I pinion back and forth between following monthly and in trade, but don’t let my indecisiveness fool you. Elephantmen is, in a word, wonderful. However, issue #59 was something else entirely. Richard Starkings and Axel Medellin’s beautiful translation of H.R. Geiger’s work and philosophy was not only a reaction to the artist’s death but also to his life, a life lived as it was reasoned: clinically. In 2015, as my life fell apart, my marriage ended and I worked laboriously to rise from the ashes, #59 was a book I carried with me in my backpack. It, like my laptop and Thoth Deck, was with me all the time, everywhere I went, and I often consulted its beauty and surgical wisdom to put myself in the proper headspace to continue to live, breath, go to work, call family or friends, edit my show, whatever. Situational Depression was not something I’d ever dealt with before; in my life I’ve lost a lot of friends in terrible ways and yet somehow none of that prepared me for the stygian waves of self-lacerating madness that accosted me as I literally burned to the ground, swept myself back up and went about the daily routines. Mr. Starkings and Mr. Medellin’s exposition and deconstruction of Geiger’s cold, biological world philosophy filled me with the strength required to go on, and in my opinion it is truly an instance of the work transcending the medium and becoming eternal. And for that, I thank them.
Wow, that was a heavy way to end things, but it had to be said. To make it up to you dear readers, next week we’ll talk about the new Gallagher Vs. Superman Vs. Andrew “Dice” Clay movie set to hit theatres in 2018. Until then, read on!
* And for the record my favorite non-Lebowski Coen film is probably Miller’s Crossing, in case you wondered
Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!
Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.