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.

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Comics // Weekly Pull List // 21/10/15

It’s a pretty quiet week, but the few books that are out come from some of the best titles of the moment.

Weekly Pull List 21.10.15

Black Canary #5 – Last issue of Black Canary delivered an interesting if unusual diversion as much of the book focused on a new villain from the band’s past. With the absence of series regular artist Annie Wu that gave the issue the feel of a solid side story, but given Wu’s most recent issue (#3) had been the point at which the book really gained momentum I was looking forward to getting back into the core story with the full creative team. Alas Wu is absent once again this month, and as good as fill in artist Pia Guerra is this book really feels like it belongs to Wu so any art change has a big impact.

Gotham Academy #11 – It’s always a joy when a new Gotham Academy hits the shelves; this is such a straight-up fun book that revels in the twin worlds of Famous Five-esque Harry Potterian supernatural boarding school hijinks and superhero mythologies. The writing is great and artist Karl Kerschl is still on hand to deliver some wonderful visuals.

Weirdworld #5 // Secret Wars – This book has been amongst my favourites from the clutch of great Secret Wars tie-ins, having benefited from strong writing, incredible art, and (given that this is a ‘Warzone’) a pretty clear distinction from the events of the SW core book. Many of the otherwise great SW minis have struggled with the final issue though, especially where ongoing’s are in their future (as is the case here), but I’m cautiously optimistic that this one will stick the landing and deliver something satisfying.

Wolf #4 – I picked this book up on a whim, mostly because the cover to this issue is a striking and intriguing piece, but also because the book sounds interesting. The idea of a paranormal detective in a contemporary city is one that appeals to me in plenty of ways, but that I’ve rarely actually enjoyed in practice (often due to an over reliance on old standards like vampires, poor integration of contemporary culture/technology, or dubious world-building). Here’s hoping this book overcomes those difficulties and delivers a unique and compelling take on a common premise.

Comics // Review // Black Canary #4

Concise //

Black Canary has been established in an unusual niche for mainstream comics; a superhero without a city, a setting that is almost a road movie somewhere between Almost Famous and Easy Rider, and a visual style as much devoted to the physicality of live performance and the paraphernalia of the music tour as it is to traditional action scenes of comic books. These qualities are often on display, but the real strength of the writing is in how it uses the book’s central conceit (superhero-in-a-rock-band!) as a generator for intriguing plots, diverse characters, and interesting settings. This issue lets the lead take something of a backseat in order to delve deeper into the formation of the original band and the fallout from changing the line-up. It’s an usual approach, but it’s one that pays dividends, offering up some compelling and sympathetic character work whilst maintaining the brisk and engaging pace that previous issues have established.

Black Canary #4 Cover

Spoilerful //

The world of Black Canary has slowly been growing with new heroes and villains emerging from not just Dinah’s past, but the band’s collective history too. The book started strong, but it was in the last issue that the various narrative pieces really started to come together. Dinah is of course the heart of the book, but her relationship to the band Black Canary has become a central focus so the reappearance of a spurned former lead singer is one with a great deal of thematic resonance. Writer Brenden Fletcher takes this issue to build on what we know about the characters and the band itself, almost sidelining Dinah from a narrative perspective, but with wonderful results. The history of Black Canary that we have been piecing together from news articles, blog posts, and passing hints, finally takes centre stage, along with a woman who considers herself the victim of it.

Whilst this is certainly another high quality issue, I was sad to see that it was without the greatness of Annie Wu’s art. Fortunately guest artist Pia Guerra is a good sub for Wu, and whilst I miss the punk brilliance of Wu’s art, Guerra gamely steps up and delivers a very well put together issue. One of the hallmarks of Fletcher’s writing is the use of diegetic visual elements to help support the storytelling (emails and texts in Batgirl, for example) and here Guerra delivers great character work via the faux album covers that open the issue. It is clear just from these panels that Meave is both an outlandish fantasist and something of a self-serious diva. The panel work is also on top form throughout, continuing a strong run of well laid out pages in this book. The panels of Ditto mimicking Maeve’s dance moves were simple, but effective, giving a great sense of motion and adding the atmosphere of playful consequence-less-ness around Maeve (despite her gravely serious actions). The mirroring of this layout in the scuffle between Dinah and the car thief was another great moment, one that highlights the differences between these two women – Maeve is able to breeze through life focused on a single thing, her own vision of success, blithely sacrificing anyone to the cause whilst Dinah is constantly side tracked by the needs of others, she can’t even complete a mission to save Ditto without having to take a break to save someone else. For Maeve life is about having fun, or dancing, with people until they get you where you want to go, for Dinah it is about putting your own concerns to one side in order to do the right thing and stop, or dodge the punches of, criminals.

The entire book works to establish this theme, the contrast between these two people. I appreciated the effort to round out Maeve’s character here, yes it is clear from the start that she is unwell, but great care was taken to cast her in a sympathetic and engaging light. She never endangers Ditto’s life (although it was perhaps naive of Maeve to assume Amanda Waller and the paramilitary types wouldn’t do so) and in fact become quite likable despite what she is doing to everyone. Her back story was also compellingly told and Fletcher does well to establish that she is an unreliable narrator giving a slanted version of events at the same time as showing us the core of the truth. Maeve admits to abandoning her family claiming that they were viewing her as a “commodity” before going on to describe herself in basically the same terms (her ability to money and invest it wisely); we see that her parents are concerned about her leaving, but it looks more like it is out of love than for lost profits. She admits to being a difficult artist, even is she sees it as a virtue rather than a byproduct of ego. She even openly admits to trying to burn down a recording studio full of people (!) and goes on to demonstrate that Dinah has become a focus of her disquieted mind (the conflated timeline here further suggests troubling aspects of Maeve’s mental state: almost immediately after she walks out on the video shoot and contract talks she sees Dinah on the stage in her place). If Maeve’s telling is to be believed it does seem like she has worked hard and sacrificed a lot to succeed in a tough business, so it is a small tragedy that she can only see Dinah as an obstacle to her success who ‘had it easy’ given that in many ways they could be kindred spirits. In her life Dinah has never had it easy, nor I suspect would she want to take the easy route, but Maeve hasn’t been privy to the darkness she’s lived through and doesn’t seem to care in case. It’s an interesting story to tell and the team are making great work of it: a Behind the Music-style story of petty band squabbles, diva tantrums, and broken contracts given a super-heroic twist in the form of Canary Cries and magic bassists.

One qualm that I have had with this book so far is the tendency to disregard the support characters, a tactic that I thought had come to an end last issue when Byron, Paloma, Heathcliff, and even new boy Kurt seemed to be growing more integral to the book’s story telling. This issue dials all of those characters right back though, with barely a handful of panels between them, even despite the fact that they are essential ingredients in the brewing revenge plot. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the time taken to flesh out Maeve so it is probably a net gain for this arc at least, but I must admit it’s a shame not to see the band more involved in the plots by now; the book’s name does refer to the entire band Black Canary rather than just Dinah ‘D.D’ Lance after all.

Everything is in place for this book to continue getting even better; the cast, the writing, the distinctive visual style that Wu has developed and Guerra has sustained, it’s all well established and the introduction of an intriguing new potential hero ninja only raises the stakes even more. Each issue of this story has strengthened an already strong concept, and helped to turn it into an excellent read. This issue is no different, and I can’t wait to see where Fletcher, Wu, et al take this band next!

Black Canary #4 Panel 2

Black Canary #4 // Writer Brenden Fletcher / Artist – Pia Guerra / Colours – Lee Loughridge // DC

Notes //

– The cell tower ping was an interesting moment as Maeve is clear that she won’t be using her phone so as to avoid tracking via GPS. Did Waller’s crew ping the tower on Maeve’s behalf to put people off her sent, or was something more mysterious going on? it seemed pretty clear that the ping was a miss-direct by someone given that the Dinah’s search ultimately hit a dead end and no one recognised Maeve or Ditto. At one point I wondered if Ditto herself used Maeve’s phone somehow, but it didn’t seem like she was that concerned about the whole affair.

– I loved that Dinah called on the technical expertise of the New DCU’s Oracle Frankie Charles for that tracking assist.

– Lee Loughridge continues to deliver wonderful colour work on this book – from the sun down Easy Rider opening to the washed out memories to the car headlight bleached finale, Loughridge is able to enhance the writing and artwork and evoke just the right mood.

– Something in the timing of the appearance and Ditto’s face made me wonder if the ninja in white might be a manifestation of Ditto’s unusual powers. But then she was watching over the motel at the end so that theory kind of doesn’t make any sense any more.

– No Burnside Tofu this ‘ish – where am I going to get my fanzine-fix?!

– I have literally never understood the name ‘Maeve’ or how to pronounce it. Help me out here, does it rhyme with ‘pave’ (so why the extra ‘e’) or ‘Neve’ (why the ‘a’), or is it somehow like the colour (why not a ‘u’)?

Comics // Review // Black Canary #3

Concise //

Opening with an outstanding, mostly wordless, set piece this issue also finds time to drop in weighty revelations and hard-earned character development. This is easily the strongest issue yet of an already great book where the art, writing, characters, and setting all begin to click in exactly the right way – if you aren’t reading this yet then now is the perfect time to get involved.

Black Canary #3 Cover - Annie Wu

Continue reading Comics // Review // Black Canary #3

Comics // Pull List // August Comics

The month may already have begun and some great books have already hit the shelves, but there’s still plenty more to come over the next few weeks. Here’s a few of the books I’ll be picking up:

Black Canary #3 / Brendan Fletcher, Annie Wu

The latest corner of the DC universe to be brilliantly re-invented is the touring band Black Canary featuring the former Canary herself Dinah Lance. There is a wild abandon to this book that takes in locales familiar and unfamiliar as it positions itself as the rebellious older sibling to the Batgirl book. Annie Wu’s art is perfectly suited to the book and helps to drive this exciting and unpredictable adventure.

Black Canary #3 Cover Extract

Descender #6 / Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen

Jeff Lemire has taken the touching tale of ‘young’ android Tim-21 (and a little inconvenience like the end of the world) and built it into an exciting science fiction epic with an interesting ensemble cast. The wonderful art from Nguyen is equally responsible for the brilliance of this book with every page offering stunning visuals.

Descender #6 Cover Extract

Gotham Academy #9 / Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschl

Harry Potter meets Batman may have been the interesting initial premise of this book, but compelling characters, fun mysteries, and sharp plotting have turned it into the must-read it has become. With Kerschl back on regular art the world is right again; everyone should be reading this book!

Gotham Academy #9 Cover Extract

Master of Kung Fu #4 / Haden Blackman, Dalibor Talajic

I didn’t expect much of this book before reading it, but I should have known better as Blackman is one of the best martial arts writers out there (if that’s a particular thing!) Blackman’s work on Elektra was top notch and this book again proves that he can craft interesting worlds with a rich martial tradition. The reworking of classic kung fu cinema tropes into this fantasy realm have only served to make it even better and it will be a shame to see this mini-series end.

Master of Kung Fu #4 Cover Extract

Secret Wars #5 / Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic

Unexpectedly the many tie in books for this summer event have been of a very high quality, but perhaps the biggest surprise of Secret Wars is the main book itself. Hickman has been putting together a long form Avengers tale over the last few years that has led to this climatic, satisfying event (something that Marvel have failed to do effectively for the last couple summer crossovers). There is plenty of great plot-work in this book, but now Doom has finally taken the stage personally and things will only get more exciting from here.

Secret Wars #5 Cover Extract