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 // Batgirl #45

Concise //

This issue lets the plot take a mostly back seat in favour of some intense emotional beats;  Barbara’s best friend Alyssia is about to get married so Babs has to balance being the best ‘best woman’ ever and dealing with a romantic figure from her own past. It is a solid read with some great continuity and lovely moments, but it also continues the recent trend of a somewhat aimless Batgirl. As ever, though, the art is top notch and this issue benefits from some even more gorgeous colouring than usual.

Batgirl #45 Cover

Spoilerful //

Since the end of the opening arc for this new Batgirl run things have felt ever so slightly off. Batgirl #35 started the story of Babs settling into her new surroundings, introducing some new supporting players, and facing off against a mysterious villain operating through hired guns. It was artfully put together – the story was tightly paced and capitalised on a traditional villain-of-the-week structure to keep the action flowing whilst building up that central mystery. Since the conclusion of that story in Batgirl #40 there hasn’t really been much of a driving narrative behind Babs’ adventures; instead the approach has switched to a far more nebulous storytelling structure that is primarily concerned with the soap operatic elements of Barbara’s life. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, in fact it is refreshing to see a superhero book spend some more time on the human drama behind the masks, but it has been accompanied by a lack of over-arching story in recent months that has left the momentum of the book stalling a little.

Alyssia’s renewed prominence in the book has been very welcome, and if there has been an arc for the last few issues it is most probably the run up to Alyssia’s nuptials. The wedding scenes offer a number of really lovely moments, and are an important event for comics in general. Alyssia and Jo’s love, and its celebration at their wedding, is treated as any other characters would be, just as it should be. It is great to see the creators genuinely embracing and supporting these characters and providing a welcome representation of non-hetronormative love in such a mature and positive way. The wedding is also easily the strongest part of this issue with some great scenes between most of the character groupings – Alyssia and Babs have a chance to re-affirm their best friends status with some excellent Bab’s as super-maid-of-honour moments, Dinah makes an appearance, and there is some strong work establishing the playful, budding romance between Babs and Luke. It is also worth calling out the page where Alyssia and Jo make their vows as it is absolutely beautiful in art, dialogue, and sentiment.

I often lament the fact that superheroes rarely get to just enjoy the good times (super villains have an annoying habit of gate-crashing weddings, anniversaries, and graduations) so I was really pleased to see that the ’emergency’ this issue was one born of human drama rather than superhuman tomfoolery. Former love Dick Grayson recently returned to Babs’ life after spending his ‘death’ running super secret spy missions for the last few years (there must be something going around – see also Kurt in Black Canary!). Unfortunately the nature of his non-emergency and it’s place in this issue is quite underwhelming – Dick really lives up to his name here. Why he felt the need to drag Babs’ away from both her best friends’ wedding and a date with her new boyfriend for basically no reason at all is beyond me. I appreciate that he is dealing with some tough ‘feels’ right now and is looking to reconnect emotionally with Babara, but his poor timing here just comes across as jealous churlishness rather than charming and soulful.

The flashback to an earlier time is actually a great little moment (I’m especially fond of having the contemporary dialogue come from our heroes’ younger selves) serve as it does to establish the emotional history for Babs, but it felt totally out of place. This issue is all about looking forward, Alyssia and Jo are embarking on a life together, Barbara and Luke are developing their relationship and the presence of Dick, with his melancholic flashback, is designed to demonstrate how Babs’ is letting go of the sad anchors of the past and embracing that forward momentum towards a better life. But this is an inorganic and quite on-the-nose way to bring up those feelings; Dick appears out of nowhere and almost bullies Babs into joining him on a nothing adventure. He comes across as the superhero equivalent of a massive jerk ex who can always charm you to drop what you’re doing and head over to his place in the middle of the night, you know they’ll only hurt you, but you can’t stop yourself. This is presumably the intention of his characterisation in this issue, but I don’t want to read about a Babs who would fall for that trick – she went through a dark spell a few issues back and this behaviour would sit well there, but with everything in her life back on track and especially on a day so important to her best friend it doesn’t ring true to me that she would drop everything and everyone for this guy. Alyssia even calls out Babs’ poor behaviour, “I mean I know she has a habit of leaving abruptly, but I didn’t think she’d do it today“, and I found myself really disliking Barbara’s decision to put a flirtatious romp above her friend (and boyfriend’s) happiness and I don’t think that was the intention. It really felt like the entire Dick Grayson side-show was an excuse to get Babs in the Batgirl costume for a page or two whilst mercilessly hammering home that Babs wants to move on from the past.

But all of this, the goodness of the wedding and the badness of Dick Grayson, doesn’t really speak to the current underlying weakness in the book. Without a strong central plot for this arc there have been a number of brief adventures and a sidelining of elements of the relaunch that had previously been a part of what made it so great. Characters like Nimah and to a lesser extent Qadir have dropped from view, whilst potential love interests like Jeremy and Liam were cast off the moment Luke arrived. It may be that this was always the intention, and that those characters were introduced only as red herrings for the villain reveal at the end of the first arc, but it is still disappointing as it undermines the living breathing Burnside world that set Babs’ stories apart from the rest of the Bat-family. Even Burnside itself, like those other characters, has become a background in the most traditional sense too; the strong sense of place, of Burnside being a different part of Gotham with it’s own denizen’s, heroes, and villains isn’t quite there now. Babs’ school work isn’t part of the story anymore, her relationships with Dinah and Frankie aren’t driving the plot either (Dinah’s absence makes sense given that she has her own book again, but why isn’t Frankie in this more), and she isn’t working towards anything in paricular. Instead we have seen a relatively low-key set of disconnected multi-part stories. Exploring how her father’s regrettable new role as giant-robot-police-Batman and her best friends wedding affect Babara are interesting topics, but without a strong narrative structure that ties them into Babs day to day life they haven’t been as compelling as perhaps they could have been.

Even visually the book has set aside some of it’s great hallmarks – those wonderful page layouts from early in the book where Babs’ remembers and pieces together clues and panels that integrated modern technology into Babs’ world (text messages, emails, playlists, etc.) have been featured far less frequently. None of this is fatal, and the book is still a good read each month, but it definitely feels like the strong artistic and narrative vision which propelled the first arc has been on a lower setting recently. If this issue came at the end of a breathless arc then it would be a very refreshing chance to catch a breathe and join the characters revealing in the emotional climax of Alyssia and Jo’s wedding. Coming as it does after a number of relatively slow, relatively low stakes, and essentially disconnected stories, the impact of the slow down is lost a little to the point of almost stalling.

This is very much still a fun comic to read and my misgivings with the general pace and feel of the recent storytelling shouldn’t be taken as an argument not to read it. Babs Tarr’s art remains absolutely delightful on every page and Stewart & Fletcher are still writing some engaging, witty dialogue (that bow tie conversation is really quite charming), but it’d be disingenuous not to call out the shift in pace that the book has undergone recently. Even if some of that early magic has dissipated, everything still exists in this book to make it truly great once again; this creative team is incredibly strong and the world they have crafted has the potential for more amazing comic books. I have great hope and no doubt that they will recapture what made this book so good.

Batgirl #45 Panel 1

Batgirl #45 // Writers – / Artist – Babs Tarr / Colourist – Serge Lapointe // DC

Notes //

– Serge Lapointe is on amazing form this issue, with beautiful colouring in every panel. The various hues of pink give the issue a distinct feeling of the romantic backdrop, but Lapointe isn’t afraid to throw in bold colour changes to add drama and impact (the opening page Babs’ to the rescue panels, for instance, do a great job reminding of Batgirl in action – a choice that immediately raises the stakes of every small crisis).

– It’s a great touch having Dinah and her band Black Canary playing the wedding and singing some 80’s power ballads! It’s cool to see a Babs Tarr version of Lord Byron, Ditto, and Paloma too.

– What with the questionable cameo of Red Robin in Gotham Academy #11 as well as Grayson here I’m beginning to wonder if there is an editorial mandate to shoe horn unnecessary appearances into books as part of a miss-judged cross-promotional campaign. (I appreciate that this is a staple of superhero books but it rarely feels as forced as it has in recent DC books)

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 28/10/15

Some of my favourite books are out this week, plus an interesting new comic from trusted hands.

Weekly Pull List 28.10.15

Art Ops #1 – I know very little about the nature of this book, but the presence of Mike and Laura Allred on art and colouring duties made this worth a blind purchase. The contents look as great as you would expect and the idea of crazy art based hijinks make this a book I’m looking forward to reading.

Batgirl #45 – Babs Tarrs’ art remains a constant source of enjoyment on this book even if this second arc has lacked the narrative strength and clarity of the previous one. This issue promises some big emotional moments though so hopefully will regain a little momentum.

Prez #5Prez really is one of the best political stories out there right now, comic book otherwise, as the pretty outlandish concept of random teen gets elected president by fluke has been turned into an engine for some biting satire. With the brilliant Ben Caldwell returning to pencilling duties this should be another great issue.

The Spire #4 – Drawing on traditional concepts from fantasy, political, and mystery stories The Spire has really grown into a tremendously compelling book. And that’s not to mention the wonderful art from Jeff Stokely!

They’re Not Like Us #9 – I’ve written a lot about this book on here, and with good reason, everything in it from the writing to the art to the colouring to the very concept is just excellent. This really is one of the best books available.

Comics // Review // Gotham Academy #11

Concise //

Gotham Academy delivers another great issue packed with fun moments and intriguing mysteries. This story takes on some of the bigger continuity elements of the book so far even whilst bringing out some of the biggest guns a school based comic book has to offer – a field trip to Gotham city! This is an action packed issue that has excitement, comedy, and  one or two answers up its sleeve, even if it does go on to pose plenty more questions!

Gotham Academy #11 Cover

Spoilerful //

The mystery of Olive’s past has been a powerful story engine for this book ever since it began and even as some secrets are slowly being teased out it feels like there is a whole lot more to the Silverlock family tree still left unrevealed. That is a good thing for the book as it continues to give the central team a reason to stick together and go on puzzle-solving adventures, even as the dangers keep piling up. After the excitement of an almost done-in-one Clayface vs acting story last issue this one picks up on more of the long running threads. The team are heading in to central Gotham under the cover of a tennis tournament featuring Kyle.

Kyle’s place in this book has always been an odd one. Sure he is an important part of Olive’s romantic past and he is Maps’ big brother, but writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher have been content to keep him outside the core ensemble and relatively undefined (although yes, we know he likes tennis). It is possible that this has simply been a function of the creative teams’ wise focus on the more interesting Olive/Maps relationship over the traditional Olive/Kyle one, but this issue is the biggest evidence yet that there might be more to Kyle’s frequent absences from Detective Club. Last issue he was more keen on playing tennis than helping out with the school play/Clayface incident; this time that is turned into a benefit for the club serving as instead as a distraction for their real mission in Gotham. But by the time the issue finishes it becomes clear that Kyle wasn’t at the tennis at all, and in fact that he may be more closely intertwined in the mystery Silverlock family than previously suspected. Is the two-part key a clue to the whereabouts of a kidnapped Kyle? Or is he actually responsible for the appearances of this ‘ghost’?

The presence of Red Robin is a mixed blessing in this issue; on the one hand he doesn’t actively do much personally (I’m sure an alternative way of dematerialising Calamity could have been found), whilst on the other Cloonan and Fletcher make sure to give Maps some great superhero fan girl moments (on that topic how amazing is the cover to this issue!). Red Robin also takes the opportunity to give a little backstory on Calamity in a lovely flashback drawn by Mingle Helen Chen (I’m not the biggest fan of fill in artist, but when it is used to serve a function it can be very effective). Again, this could have been worked in without the presence of Red Robin: the only reason I mention this is that there are a good few pages devoted to Red Robin whilst Pomeline and Colton’s side quest to the law office gets short shrift (the assumption being that we’ll find out what they found at the law office via exposition next issue). The art in the rest of the book is up to the usual wonderful standard of Karl Kerschl, with some terrific moments, especially those featuring the otherworldly antics of Calamity.

The issue ends with one heck of a moment; the two clues (one dropped when the ghost of Calamity disappears in the records room, and the other left in Kyle’s locker) fit together to form a key to Arkham Asylum! What exactly it opens at the asylum is still a mystery, but the idea that the Detective Club will be infiltrating the place, probably by the tunnels in/under the school, is an exciting one. Alongside the mysteries of the Silverlock’s there has also been a persistent question of history of the Academy itself – there is clearly a close connection between the school and the Asylum that runs deeper than just a shared architectural aesthetic. Questions and moments like these are what makes this book such fun to read, they are surprising not just to the audience but to the characters too, and the fact that Maps and the others have such an enthusiasm and excitement about it all is infectious.

I’ve been impressed by Gotham Academy throughout its run so far, the characters remain as refreshing and interesting as ever (particularly Maps, of course), and Cloonan and Fletcher keep delivering smart new adventures for them to go on. The scale of the book continues to grow, encompassing more and more of the traditional Gotham we already know, and whilst the central plot could lead anywhere there is a palpable forward momentum to Olive’s quest. This is still a great comic and this issue is as strong as ever.

Gotham Academy #11 Panel

Gotham Academy #11 // Writers – Becky Cloonan & Brenden Fletcher / Art – Karl Kerschl with Msassyk and Mingle Helen Chen / Colours – Serge Lapointe & Msassyk // DC

Notes //

– Do we really trust Hugo Strange as Olive’s creepy psychiatrist?

– You can always rely on Metropolis to offer up a convenient rival sports team; in this case the Gotham Academy tennis team are going up against the uninspiringly named Metropolis Academy!

– Katherine makes a quick appearance, one that sees Maps’ shed a little more light on the possession/artificial-construct questions regarding Clayface and Katherine last issue. There are still some unexplained things (e.g. why did Katherine go along with her father’s plan/appear evil only to turn out to be a regular girl later on), but I appreciate the writers taking a moment to clarify that she is a real girl with some Clayface-esque powers.

– I’m more intrigued by the seemingly frequent superhero cameos in Gotham Academy on a business level than on a story one (especially as they seem less essential as we go on); is a character like Red Robin turning up here to help sell Gotham Academy issues or to help promote their We Are Robin? Or is it actually to help build a stronger and more narratively coherent Gotham? If it’s that last one then maybe appearing for longer than a scene at a time would be beneficial.

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.