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 // 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.

Comics // Review // Gotham Academy #10

Concise //

Ever true to it’s inspiration (an almost Harry Potter meets Batman story) Gotham Academy continues to tell delightfully spooky mystery stories against the backdrop of a labyrinthine boarding school in DCs most dangerous city. Artfully drawing on the rich history of the Batman to establish it’s own mythology this issue drop more hints about the wider back story of both the Academy and Olive Silverlock, but it never loses focus on a terrific done-in-one story involving ghosts, impostors, and the dangers of putting on the Scottish play. This is another great issue with wonderful writing and gorgeous art on every page – this book keeps delivering spills and thrills every single month.

Gotham Academy #10 Cover

Spoilerful //

Every issue of Gotham Academy tells us more about the school itself even as it adds back layer upon layer of mystery and intrigue to proceedings. Last issue left things in the midst of high drama as Olive saw the ghost of her mother and a fire erupted; this issue delivers literal drama as the gang go undercover in a drama club performance of Macbeth in order to find out the truth about ghosts and monsters. Things take a surprising turn when a different villain takes centre stage.  Maps’ shy roommate Katherine turns out to be very different to what she seems: the man known as Clayface.

We never discover Katherine’s full name as Olive cuts her off before she can finish saying it; this is an early subtle clue to her identity – “Kar…” is presumably Karlo, Basil Karlo being Clayface’s original identity. This isn’t the only example we have of the gang ignoring Katherine’s existence though as they go on to lament that Olive has to perform two roles in the play due to there being “no one else to do it“. I genuinely felt sorry for Katherine at this point, especially given how important acting seemed to be to her. Of course this desire to act is really Clayface’s and it’s not surprising he get mad later in the issue given that he craves attention and isn’t getting noticed at all. Katherine has been getting up to some shady business for a while now, including rifling through Olive’s room last issue, and her introduction here offers a moment of eldritch horror. Kerschl draws Katherine’s first appearance from a low angle and with blackened eye sockets as she emerges from the smoke; it’s a startling and scary appearance that immediately unsettles. And yet this book has regularly introduced us to awkward and unusual denizens of the Academy (such as Eric who makes a cameo as the drama club lighting technician) with Kerschl’s art varying in style to help characterize some of the social outsiders at the school. This could have been the case with Katherine; maybe she’s just a wallflower who’s jealous of her roommate Maps’ best friend Olive, and who is trying desperately to use the school play as a creative outlet and a way to get notice. The great surprise though is that as likely as this is there is an even more organic resolution to her story.

The dramatic revelation the Katherine is actually a construct of Clayface is a tremendous one, played by Kerschl like the climax of a horror movie – Katherine cracking a dark smile as clay enshrouds her reminds of The Ring or even The Exorcist. Once revealed Clayface is a towering and imposing presence and it is great to see the amazing character design from the Batman: The Animated Series making so faithfully rendered. Typically we’d see a big fight after this reveal, but this book has to be smarter than that; it quickly becomes clear that Clayface has come to the school to get revenge on an old acting rival (he’s always been precious about his acting) leading to a showdown on the stage. It’s a fun moment as Simon Trent and Clayface trade Shakespearean quotes until the latter decides a punch will do instead. It’s great to see Olive and Maps work together smartly to use a fire hose to bring Clayface down (how much must he hate fire hoses by now) even after they have had a few friendship troubles this issue. Even when emotions run high the Detective Club can be counted on to get the job done.

There has been a larger mythology developing in the background of this book since it began; first there was the question of Oliver’s parentage, then her personal history with the Batman, and more recently the potential that she has a calamitous fire-starting power of her own. Olive confesses to her therapist, Hugo Strange, that she saw the ghostly figure of her mother just before the fire started last issue, a confession that is accompanied by a genuinely unsettling flash of a ghostly eyeball, again invoking classic horror movie imagery such as the climax of Ringu (see also Katherine’s melting face during her escape). The context of the recent fires and hauntings offer two possibilities and it is testament to the brilliant writing on the book that either could satisfyingly be true; either Olive’s mother Calamity has returned to Gotham (as ghost or resurrected villain) or Olive is unknowingly starting the fires herself and imagining her mother’s presence. There have been plenty of moments in Olive’s history that have shed light on her possible mental state and even in this issue Clayface takes a moment to tell Olive “Your mom was crazy! Hope it doesn’t run in the family“. What is really going on with Olive and her mother only time will tell, but this story is sure doing great work keeping me guessing!

This book has really become the spiritual descendant of those incredible Batman cartoons from surprisingly long ago. Like Batman: The Animated Series this book features gorgeous art and character designs, as well as sharp writing that belays it’s youthful demographic and delivers smarter plots and dialogue than one might expect from a book/show ‘for kids’. Although there are no answers to the questions that brought our heroes to the stage there is still time for some very fun scenes, a dramatic twist, and plenty of clues to the greater mysteries at the academy. This might be the best issue of this book yet, not only because it features my favourite Batman villain, but also because it is brings together everything that the book does so well – this book is all mystery and fun and damn fine art.

Gotham Academy #10 Panel 2

Gotham Academy #10 // Writers – Becky Cloonan & Brendan Fletcher / Art – Karl Kerschl with Msassyk / Colours – Serge Lapointe & Msassyk // DC

Notes //

– It would appear that the character of Katherine, Clayface’s daughter, is a new one; however, there is a precedence in the form of Annie from the cartoon The New Batman Adventures. Similar to the events of this issue Clayface formed ‘Annie’ to allow him to act undercover, but the key difference is that at the end of the episode Annie sacrifes herself and is reabsorbed into Clayface prime. It’s not entirely clear to me how Katherine remained independent of Clayface here, but it is a far happier ending seeing her survive this ordeal.

– Karl Kerschl’s cover is another artistic triumph, but it does risk cluing the reader into Clayface’s surprise involvement.

– Anyone taking bets on whether Pomeline’s mother was the defence or prosecuting attorney at Olive’s mother’s trial?

–  Maps yelling “Detective Club…ASSEMBLE” was a great moment; I’m hoping for a “To me my Detectives” moment in our future.

–  Kyle is still a reluctant member of the Detective Club; when will he fully embrace his team?

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