So here we are again. Another year is done, and that means it’s time once again for the Dork Awards. I’ve done this in a lot of different ways over the years, but this year I think I’m gonna just make it a top ten list. Clean, simple, to the point: the ten best funnybooks of 2016. Of course, since I generally write about the books I most enjoy, my list of the best is going to pretty much repeat the stuff I’ve already said about the books I’ve been reviewing for the last 365 days. So I should probably make this quick. Or at least as quick as my long-winded self can be…
CAGE! by Genndy Tartakovsky
Ether, by Matt Kindt and David Rubin
I greatly enjoyed both of these books, so much so that I didn’t want to relegate either to Honorable Mention status. So, a tie.
CAGE! is animator Genndy Tartakovsky’s long-in-the-making love letter to 1970s Blaxploitation Luke Cage, and a visual treat. He’s engaging in some wild cartooning here, with figures that morph and flow according to the emotion of the scene at hand. It’s an unabashedly fun, weird, and day-glo kind of comic, with a lead who’s unapologetically bad-ass, but also apt to lose his temper and do something stupid. Tartakovsky’s Cage is a bit of a fool, to be honest. The comic also has little in common with the very grounded Cage stories it’s ostensibly based on, and the story barely makes any sense at all. But that’s okay. It’s entertaining and fun to look at, and sometimes that’s all you really need.
Ether is also fun to look at, illustrated as it is by David Rubin, whose art evokes influences as diverse as Paul Pope and Herge. I’m also of the opinion that this book may represent Matt Kindt’s best writing of 2016. It’s his most imaginative, at the very least, dealing with a murder mystery in a magical fantasy land, being solved by an adventuring scientist from the human world, a man who’s a homeless derelict on our side of the divide, and possibly insane. The book has a whimsical tone, especially in how it deals with the world on the other side. It’s one part fairy tale, one part fantasy novel, and one part Blade Runner, which gives the whole thing a nice balance. It’s fun, but not cute, and has just the right amount of seriousness at its core to keep it interesting. Not an easy balance to maintain, but one that I’m enjoying quite a bit. Ether might have come in higher on the list, in fact, if it had published more than two issues so far.
9. Casanova: Acedia, by Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon
Another book that would undoubtedly be higher (possibly MUCH higher) on the list if more of it had been released in 2016. I’m not sure how many issues we got of this book last year, but it wasn’t many. And that’s too bad, because it’s rich stuff, multi-dimensional science fiction about memory and identity, drenched in cool spy-fi atmosphere and spooky occult imagery. It remains, as Casanova has always been, a comic that feels pretty much tailor-made for my entertainment. But it’s taken so long between issues that I’m losing track of the story (and, all modesty aside, I’m pretty damn good at keeping track of story over time). So that hurts its rating. But when it’s out, there are few books I like better.
8. Prophet: Earth War, by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milogiannis
Another book hurt by long delays between issues. But Brandon Graham’s reboot of Rob Liefeld’s Prophet finally came to an end in 2016, and in ending reminded me of how very much I liked its weirdness, and its ability to find mythic resonance in characters whose creator was, quite frankly, incapable of doing so.
7. Lazarus, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
Rucka and Lark’s tale of a dystopian near-future ruled by a sort of high-tech corporate feudalism has really hit its stride. The ruling families are in open war, power games are being played amongst the ruling class, and Our Hero (Forever Carlyle) is a powerful, but unwitting, pawn. She’s starting to wise up, though, and that’s added just the right touch to take the story from coldly intriguing futurism to genuinely engaging drama.
6. The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Another book that really hit its stride in 2016. A story about godhood and celebrity, WicDiv has been a series marked by shocking twists and surprising character deaths that sometimes actively damaged my enjoyment of the book. But all of that was building to something. It was a slow burn punctuated by the occasional lighting of a match. Well, last year that slow burn caught fire, and the story reached what would for many books have been its climax. But Gillen and McKelvie are playing a deeper game than it seemed on the surface. And our lead character, Laura, who for a long time was the only character I cared about at all, is turning out to be a character I also don’t like very much. And that is fascinating.
5. Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses, by David Lapham
A favorite of mine for its entire history, David Lapham’s Stray Bullets was firing on all cylinders in 2016. With a long-running series like this one (Lapham’s been doing it – with a decade-long gap – since the 90s), it’s easy to get complacent and bored, even when the stories are good. And that’s happened with Stray Bullets at times. The last Ginny Applejack arc (Killers) kind of dragged for me in places. But we’re now 19 issues in to the current story, and even though it mostly serves to fill in a gap in the narrative dating back to the book’s first year, I’m digging each new issue more and more. It’s low-rent suburban crime drama of a very high order, filled with engaging characters, complex and well-drawn relationships, natural comedy, and occasional outbursts of horrific violence. Lapham’s been catching comparisons to Quentin Tarantino for ages now, and his work is not nearly that self-consciously hip. But, seriously. If you like Tarantino (especially his early work), and you’re not reading Stray Bullets… You. Are. Missing. The Fuck. Out.
4. Hillbilly, by Eric Powell
Eric Powell has entered that realm of comics creators whose work I’ll buy, sight unseen, regardless of buzz, hype, or subject matter. Some of it I like better than others, but he’s always worth my funnybook dollar. All that said, with Hillbilly, he’s really knocking it out of the park. Working in a genre he calls “Appalachian Fantasy,” Powell is weaving tales that are one part folklore, one part Frazetta paperback novel cover. The stories are simple, done-in-one affairs awash in witchery, talking animal spirits, and the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. Beautifully illustrated and cool as all hell, Hillbilly not only matches Powell’s signature creation The Goon. It surpasses it.
3. The Black Monday Murders, by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker
For a book that only released three issues in 2016, Black Monday Murders sits awfully high on the list. It might have taken the number two slot, in fact, if it had started earlier in the year. But we’re only three issues in, and with a Jonathan Hickman book, that’s not enough time to see if it’s going to drift. It’s mighty tight so far, though. The world Hickman’s creating here, one of black magic and high finance, is absorbing to read about, and the cast – though I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface with some of them – is engaging. Not likable, for the most part. Even Our Hero is a bit cold. But engaging nonetheless. They’re the kinds of characters I want to know more about, anyway. And I’ll take that over mere likability any day of the week.
2. The Fade Out / Kill or be Killed, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
In second place, we have a tie that’s not a tie. I’m really awarding this slot to the continuing work of the Brubaker/Phillips team. And in 2016, they ended one funnybook novel (The Fade Out) and started a new one (Kill or be Killed). The former was a noirish tale of murder and self-compromise in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was all about beautiful lies and ugly truths, and it was damnably satisfying reading. Kill or be Killed is a far more modern tale about the nature of aggression, and a subject that should be near and dear to the heart of any long-time super hero fan: vigilantism. It’s got its noirish beats as well: the hero is self-destructive, and knows it, but can’t help doing the things he’s driven to do. Which, in this case, is go out and kill people he knows (or thinks he knows) are bad. It’s ugly stuff, but written with mystery and verve. And beautifully rendered by Sean Phillips, who just keeps getting better. The Fade Out is good work from him. But Kill or be Killed is head and shoulders above it.
It’s career-best work from a guy who’s already had a pretty stellar career. It might represent a career high for the Brubaker/Phillips team on the whole, in fact. I always enjoy their stuff, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been as excited to get a new issue of one of their books as I am for this one. And that’s why they’ve landed the number two slot.
They didn’t land number one, though, because, well… Alan Moore’s still writing comics.
1. Providence, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
Providence may wind up being the last major comics work from Alan Moore. And while that makes me a little sad, this is also one hell of a book for him to go out on. There’s still another volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ahead, I think, but League (in fact, the whole former ABC line) is Alan Moore having fun. This is Moore in “serious” writing mode. Work on the level of Watchmen or From Hell. Challenging, complex, heavily-researched fiction. The fact that it’s all about HP Lovecraft is, for me, just icing on the cake.
I’m maybe 9/10 the Lovecraft scholar Moore has become in preparation for writing this book. I know a lot about the man and his work. Not as much as Moore, but enough that I can see the strings he’s pulling above and behind the pages. If writing is a magic trick (as Moore has so eloquently argued), in this case I know how the trick was done. It’s the kind of familiarity with the source material that could breed contempt in something written with less skill. But Moore has used that material in such an interesting way, drawn connections between things so cleverly, that my reaction has been the opposite.
It’s not just that I can read an issue of Providence and go, “Oh! I know that thing!” It’s that I can read it and think, “Holy crap! I can’t believe he combined that thing with this thing, and made it a metaphor for closeted gay life in the 1920s!” And when, in the most recent issue, he wraps the whole thing back around on itself, and makes it all a metaphor for 21st Century dissipation… Well, good lord. That is the stuff of literature. And that is why Providence was the best comic of the year 2016.
Thank you, and good night.