Year-End // A Handful of Amazing Things I Discovered in 2015

It’s been a while since we lived in the year 2015 and most ‘best of’ lists have long since been and gone. Alas, given my recent blogging hiatus I hadn’t gotten around to putting together any thoughts on the year. Until now!

The following is a pretty random selection of media that I really enjoyed over the year; there were plenty of other films, comics, and movies that I enjoyed too, but these are the ones that had that little extra personal impact. It’s not ordered by preference, or category, or chronology, and some of it predates 2015 and I just happened to encounter it then. Simply put, all of this stuff left a real impression on me and gave me a lot of pleasure; it’s likely it’ll be with me for a long time.

// The DC Comics of Brendan Fletcher w/ Becky Cloonan, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr, Karl Kerschal and Annie Wu

It’s wrong to single out the work of writer Brendan Fletcher alone over his many highly talented collaborators, especially given that it’s impossible to know who contributes what, but the various works Fletcher has been involved in this year managed to do something that few other books have done in almost a decade: get me excited about DC comics again. Batgirl and Gotham Academy have delivered some great characters and moments over the year as have the more recent travails of Black Canary. These are superhero books that have found a way to be refreshing, often through stories that feel like wonderfully spontaneous adventures with a bunch of good friends. At their best these are some of the most fun reads on my pull list.

// The Art of Babs Tarr

Batgirl #37 Pixtagraph (Babs Tarr)

It seems like I’ve spent a lot of 2015 discovering incredible new talent, and the ‘list’ of my favourite artists is markedly different at the end of the year compared to what it was at the start. Chief amongst those changes is probably my quick and all encompassing infatuation with the art of Babs Tarr. Every issue of Batgirl has been an absolute joy to look at and the variant covers and prints that Tarr has produced have all been just as wonderful. Characters look fun, wear modern fashion, and live in a relatable world; these are people I want to be and hang out with, even when they’re fighting tigers or super-villains, or each other. There is a playful and inviting warmth and a contemporary feel to Tarr’s art that captures a welcome shift in the way superhero comics are written and drawn.

// Elementary

Elementary Still 1

Although I am a fan of Holmesian stories I took a pass on this show when I first heard about it due in no small part to my memories of Johnny Lee Miller as Crash Overide in Hackers. My surprise was significant then when I finally did watch the first episode and it was a top notch procedural with a tremendous interpretation of, and performance of, the great detective. The show leans heavily into the drug addiction elements of the Holmes cannon and finds a great deal of compelling pathos in it. The weekly cases can suffer some of the problems typical of procedural shows (the most famous guest actor usually did it, the plots tend to swerve at the same time each episode, etc.), but the ever engaging performances by Miller and Liu, and the character dynamics at the heart of the show keep it very enjoyable throughout. When I finally started watching this show I just couldn’t stop; I ended up watching 3 seasons in about 3 weeks. I even gave dvds of the show as more than one Christmas gift. Plus the New York brownstone set is a place I would love to live in!

// The Steve Jobs Script

'Steve Jobs' film - 2015

The direction was perfunctory and the performances were excellent, but it was the script for Steve Jobs that elevated the film to incredible status. I’ve long been a fan of Sorkin’s work, and for all his problems he can still write dialogue like few others ever have. The fact that the structure of the movie essentially creates 5 ongoing conversations that take turns for 90 minutes means that there is sparkling dialogue everywhere; it is non-stop brilliance, full of smart, funny, piercing, and endlessly quotable lines. There’s a fair argument that it is more of a play than a film,but for me that is absolutely what makes the experience so amazing.

// They’re Not Like Us

They're Not Like Us #3 Panel

I stumbled upon this comic mostly because the striking cover featured the intriguing opening panel of the story, and I am so grateful I picked it up. This book has been the most interesting, compelling, and thrilling ongoing I have read all year – building up from a simple troubled teens with powers origin to a broader, darker rumination on society’s response to a youth culture it does not understand. The slower pace has allowed characters to organically reveal themselves and the sense of paranoia and oppression to really take hold. All the while the tremendous art/colouring from Simon Gane  and Jordie Bellaire has helped to drive the story and provide memorable & innovative demonstrations of superpowers in use. I’ve been lamenting the lack of a good mutant outcast X-book for years, and then secretly this book answered my prayers.

// The Art of Mike Del Mundo

Elektra #11 Panel

Elektra was a book that ultimately felt more like a dramatic rendering of the main characters psyche than a straightforward narrative and that was thanks to the spectacular art by Mike Del Mundo. Del Mundo manages to somehow create art that is both dream like and grittily detailed, and his worlds are both epic and intimate. Every book I’ve read that he has drawn has undoubtedly been elevated by his incredible artwork. It’s also worth noting that the various covers that Del Mundo has worked on have been ingenious and marvelous without exception. I’ve spent endless hours staring deep into Del Mundo’s art; each panel offers a wealth of beauty and detail that reward your attention.

// All New X-Men #37

All-New X-Men #37 Panel

I’ve been quite vocal about my disappointment with the recently concluded X-Men run from Brian Micheal Bendis, but this issue was an exception that genuinely blew me away. Telling an incredibly simple story, Emma Frost takes young Jean Grey on a training mission to Madripoor, this book managed to deliver deeper character, world building, action, and drama than the entirety of the rest of Bendis’ run. Featuring cinematic art from Mike Del Mundo the book has it all: outstanding action, fun moments, funny lines, sharply observed characterisation, and a hidden but palpably warm heart in Emma’s secret devotion to keeping Jean safe. X-Men comics have been in a sorry state for years (and continue to be so), but this issue really shows what you can do when you combine those merry mutants with tremendous art and on point writing.

// Killjoys

Killjoys Team Still 1

This series marked the start of the Syfy channel’s return to making actual sci-fi, and what a return it was. Killjoys is pure fun, a breathless action adventure that follows three good-guy-bounty-hunters as they work on ostensibly unrelated warrants, but it all becomes entwined in both the personal histories of our heroes and the fate of this particular corner of the galaxy. The show puts together a rewarding blend of character- and plot-led drama, comedy, spectacle, and action, all along side some very effective world building. There are plenty of cliche breaking twists and some really smart done-in-one stories, and by the time the season finale rolled around I was entirely hooked by the questions at the heart of the show’s universe and charmed by its likable characters.

// The Age of Adaline

Film Review The Age of Adaline

I’m a bit of a soppy romantic at heart and also a fan of magical-realism-meets-star-crossed-lovers stories (a surprisingly common genre!) so this movie is pretty much made for me. The story and style of the film seem to take their lead from the underated Fincher classic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even down to the lighting and framing of many scenes, but the elegance of the execution here ensures that Adaline never comes off as being derivative. Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to actual acting with this film, and he is good, but the film’s real secret weapon is Ellen Burstyn how manages to convey a lifetime of love and regret in her scenes with her mother Blake Lively. It also has to be said that Lively herself does an excellent job holding the film, and her performance as the stoic Adaline is full of masterfully delivered small moments of introspection and aching. Although the script could probably have done with a little more oomph at times, this is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acte, modern fairy tale that left me positively aglow with all kinds of emotions by the end. Also the costume design was absolutely on point!

// Master of None

 

Master of None Still 1

Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom took me completely by surprise, both in it suddenly existing at all and in how good it was. I like Ansari from PNR and his live shows, but he can sometimes lose me when he gets deep into a celebrity story or Randy performance. Fortunately Master of None is brilliantly funny and Ansari is an excellent lead. The real strength, though, lies in how it consistently offers a smart, incisive alternative view on ubiquitous sitcom material. The second episode takes time out of the comedy to tell a wonderfully touching story of immigrant family life without ever becoming saccharine, and the way the show positions modern dilemma’s like wanting to spend time with the family that you love but also wanting your own life in a sympathetic relatable way whilst still finding the funny aspects of the situation. Over the 10 episodes there are some touching moments, some profound moments, and many many funny moments.

Comics // Review // All-New X-Men #37

Concise

This issue takes the better elements of Brian Michael Bendis’ long X-Men run and uses them to tell an intimate story exceptionally well. Things get back to basics here as Emma Frost and young Jean Grey put on a two character play taking in suppressed emotions, field-based training, and cutting wit – the dialogue is tight, funny, and precise, whilst the simple story is well told and hits all the right beats. And yet the high quality writing is still eclipsed by the outstanding art by Mike Del Mundo. Simply stunning.

All-New X-Men #37 Cover

Spoilerful

Bendis’ wider X-Men work has been uneven and full of mildly curious yet unsatisfying ideas (and sooooo much time travel that the concept has become all but meaningless), but this issue proves that he can still write sharp and interesting characters in smart and compelling stories. The book works so well because it essentially jettisons all of that recent muddling continuity and messy story telling in favour of a keen focus on the Emma/Young Jean character dynamic. Even if it has to fudge some recent events (and less recent ones) to really work, we are given a very good character study with some excellent moments. This is simply the story of Emma Frost taking Jean Grey on an ‘in the field’ training exercise, and it is excellent.

Emma is written at her best in this issue; she makes smart and witty remarks, but they only serve to cover her good intentions and heart; she really believes that young Jean can be stronger and survive longer than ‘old’ Jean and that is a uniquely intriguing situation to be in given their history. And for her part Jean speaks with an authentically youthful and likeable voice without being naive or grating – she may lack some confidence but her strength is definitely on display. Bendis is back on form here and his dialogue this issue, much like his characterisation, is top-notch – Emma is supportive but in a uniquely Emma way (“don’t get snippy“), Jean asks questions and demands answers without getting frustrated or angry, and both characters are funny all the way through. Half way through the issue Jean is tasked with taking out the Blob, a neat choice given his historical relationship with Jean and the X-Men, as well as his current low status in the X-books. Much like Madripoor, the Blob was relatively recently seen in Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men book where his betrayal of his mutant brethren (and specifically Mystique) came as the result of his growing addiction to Mutant Growth Hormone (MGH), a drug that until a handful of issues ago was being manufactured using the comatose body of Dazzler. This is the kind of continuity that works well; rather than getting bogged down in time-traveling duplicates and weird mutant political distinctions we get to briefly touch base with characters, concepts, and story elements in a light and fun way (even with the serious overtones of the MGH smuggling business).

Whilst the story is ultimately pretty straightforward, the art is anything but (in a gloriously good way). Mike Del Mundo, most recently doing amazing work on Elektra, paints some beautiful pages in this issue. The book takes on the tone of its protagonists – as Emma talks Jean through the ‘mission’ we see the city as a background, but the urbane and highly skilled Emma takes it all in her stride. The drama, the fights, the violence, and ugly side of humanity, Emma is able to ignore it all, so it fades into the background, ever-present but no kind of threat to this highly skilled X-Man/Person. When Jean takes centre stage it becomes about focused action, and the initial frantic panicked panels give way to elegant free-flowing movement as Jean takes charge with confidence and poise. And throughout the book we see the action through a visual barrier, be it broken glass, high wires, debris, or bullets, which serves to establish the intimacy of the story; this is about the barriers between Emma and Jean coming down. Emma is ultimately admitting that she respects and admires Jean, and that she cares about her. We are seeing all this from the outside looking in – we are getting to see emotions and expressions that no one else gets to (hence Magik being told to scamper); Emma isn’t usually the type to demonstrate her feelings like this and she is keeping everyone but Jean at a distance whilst she does so, even the readers. The art in this issue tells so much of the story, but it also tells a lot of the jokes too, and it is fast paced when necessary and slows down when appropriate – this is exactly how it should be done, the writing and art work together so well in this book that it feels like Bendis and Del Mundo are 20 issues into a collaborative epic, not just working together on a one-shot (and what wouldn’t I give to read that epic).

Plus there are so many delightful details hidden in the art – a street beggar holds a sign offering to reveal his identity for MGH, the rats of Madripoor have four eyes, the city’s denizen’s are diverse and wonderful, without even a word Emma Frost mind controls a couple of street toughs into walking the other way. Del Mundo draws action incredibly well, using depth and panel geography to create some truly unique moments; guns and hands pop off the page, characters are thrown across the room with a real sense of motion, figures in the foreground are sharp whilst those in the background drop out of focus. On top of which the facial expressions and physical behaviours of each character are all beautifully rendered. The ‘boop’ moment might become the iconic image, but there are a bevy of great panels – Emma nonchalantly checking her nails whilst making cutting remarks, the sudden surprise and fear of the yakuza when Jean bursts in, every panel of Emma and Jean’s passive-aggressive sparing match, the Blob’s smug face just before he smashes the floor. And what about that panel where Blob, Jean, and the yakuza-types fall through the floors of the abandoned mall? So, so great.

Working with Marco D’Alfonso, Del Mundo also colours this issue and his colouring is as outstanding as his art. The majority of the book is in a muted palette, with the blues and greys evoking the washed-out down-on-it’s-luck streets of Madripoor (honestly, between this Madripoor and the ‘Monkey Village’ in Elektra #10 I really think I could read an entire issue of Del Mundo just drawing slums). Emma Frost and Jean Grey standout starkly against the backgrounds, and when the action switches to the Blob’s base things take on a visibly darker tone. When Emma speaks about Jean’s dark past/future with the Phoenix there is a brief flash of rich orange in the background; lovely details like this are all over the place and it makes reading this book such a joy.

By taking time out of his own meandering story arc Bendis has found a way to tell a fun and interesting story, but it is thanks to the undeniably astounding Del Mundo that that story is elevated to a breath-taking new height. Everything comes together here; the dialogue is great, the action is fluid, the story is tight, and the art is simply some of the best I have seen. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book, so the only other thing I will say is: buy it.

All-New X-Men #37 Panel

All-New X-Men #37 // Writer – Brian Michael Bendis / Artist – Mike Del Mundo / Colours – Mike Del Mundo & Marco D’Alfonso // Marvel

Notes and Observations:

  • Seems like the cover editors for the X-Men are still having fun confusing everyone for no reason – young Beast and Iceman are on the cover of this issue!
  • I’m very glad that Bendis is walking back the nebulous ‘broken powers’ arc that he failed to make into much of anything of interest for the last two years.
  • The ‘please bin trash’ icon in Madripoor is a little block Wolverine!
  • The Blob sure does love his lollypops!
  • I’m still not keen on Bendis’ intention to show Xavier as a sometime villain – Whedon only just about pulled off this trick, but the cold pragmatist who is really no different to Magneto isn’t a Xavier I want to read about any more (plus didn’t we already explore that in Ultimate X-Men already?). At least the panels here are artfully done and the dialogue in them is good.
  • The action scene between Jean and the Blob is great from top to bottom; the composition, the inventive use of powers, Jean’s physiological breakthrough, Emma’s approving look all great.

All art belongs to the copyright holder