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 // 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 // Pull List // July Comics

With DC’s underwhelming Convergence finally over and Marvel’s Secret Wars delivering some great titles this is looking likely to be another good comics month. Here’s a few of the books I’ll be picking up:

Prez #2 / Mark Russell, Ben Caldwell

The story of how Beth Ross becomes the first teen president is one of accident, corruption, and serendipity. It’s also full of pretty unusual characters and situations, and all of it is drawn with the elegant beauty of Ben Caldwell’s pen. This is a book that could go either way; get mired in the social commentary or deliver on the promise of fun hijinks in the oval office (or even perfect a blend of the two).

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Weird World #2 / Jason Aaron, Mike Del Mundo

I’m still not sure what to make of this book, telling the tale of a lost warrior on a truly mad journey, as it makes for an exciting if confusing read. The nature of weird world, and even the history of the central character, remain something of a mystery, but the book is full of epic adventure and artist Mike Del Mundo continues to outdo himself with every page.

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They’re Not Like Us #7 / Eric Stephenson, Simon Gane

The most intense and compelling comic coming out at the moment reaches it’s penultimate chapter, at least for the first volume, and the writing, art, and colouring remain as impressive as ever. This is a book unlike any other right now, it is well worth reading.

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E is for Extinction #2 / Chris Burnham, Ramon Villalobos

Spinning out of perhaps the greatest X-Men story ever (bold claim!) this Secret Wars title immediately and stylishly established it’s premise and core narrative – Charles Xavier died when Cassandra Nova entered his mind; X years later and the X-Men are has-beens whilst Magneto’s school is the centre piece of a mutant utopia. This book is almost as outlandish and inventive as Morrison’s run was with new ideas and smart innovations on every page. It is frantic, chaotic, and otherworldly in all the right ways.

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Batgirl Annual #3 / Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, Mingjue Helen Chen, Bengal, Ming Doyle, David Lafuente

Between the core book, the Endgame tie in, and the recent Secret Origins it feels like there’s been a whole lot of Batgirl lately, and thanks to the stellar creative teams involved that is definitely a good thing. Fletcher and Stewart are still on board for this annual, sadly though series regular artist Tarr once again steps aside to let a number of artists, including Endgame’s Bengal, pick up the reigns (the artists in question are all good, but I’m always happy to see more of Tarr’s work).

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Comics // Review // They’re Not Like Us #5

Concise

Another sublime issue of this tremendous book that packs more than one emotional wallop, and a whole lot of brilliant character building. We are far from having all the answers, but after tensions flared last issue the history of Syd’s new friends is explored in much greater detail, even as the wheels start turning on some pretty dramatic events in the present. The art and writing are as tight as ever in an issue that rewards patient readers with hints of the past and portents of what may be to come.

They're Not Like Us #5 Cover

Spoilerful

This issue is another strong example of why this is one of the best books currently out there; subtle story and character beats from previous issues have been brought to the fore and tied together in an unexpected way. Every time a question or plot point presents itself it is quickly followed by smart and surprising exposition, character motivations appear clear and are then cleverly obfuscated, and actions take place on a very blurry line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Last time it seemed that a clearer picture of The Voice’s actions was emerging – that he has been manipulating everyone to his advantage and potentially even keeping people in the house against their will (and maybe keeping people unaware that they even wanted to leave), but this issue adds many layers to The Voice’s character that makes his actions seem just as murky as they ever have been.

The chief of this issue centres on the intense night-time conversation that Maisie and Syd have about the personal history of The Voice, and it isn’t a pretty history at all. I still don’t know who can possibly be trusted in this house, but this issue goes to great lengths to suggest that Maisie is on Syd’s side – she reveals closely guarded secrets about The Voice in an effort to help Syd understand his behaviour, and also shows she trusts Syd by revealing her own secret, that she attempted suicide. But could this entire thing be a huge piece of misdirection? Maisie can see the future, and she was shown to be in league with The Voice last issue – if she knows that the group have gone to kill or confront Syd’s parents then this conversation could all be for show, and maybe she even knows that Blurgirl has attempted suicide, or even that MiseryKid is doing some dark stuff. It may all be true, but Maisie only really tells Syd things she wants to hear – this is the legitimate reason why The Voice hates all parents, this is why he is tough and does questionable things, here is a reason to trust me (after all I’m just like you), etc. However much genuine information Maisie gives to Syd, and I think it mostly is true, this whole conversation feels somehow suspicious to me, especially given that this kind of information has been far from forthcoming in the past. In any case The Voice is simultaneously shown to be sympathetic and dangerously scarily ruthless. Stephenson does so much great work keeping things the right side of ambiguous, The Voice could be (subjectively) ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or both.

After finding out some of his past it’s now far less surprising, though no less sinister, that The Voice demands that every new member of the group must kill their parents – he doesn’t believe parents can be trusted and places a lot of blame at their feet. By killing his parents The Voice appears to have taken his revenge, but he clearly hasn’t moved past his past; he still lives in the same home, is possessed of an aggressive anti-social disposition, and takes fashion and style inspiration from his parents and his ‘mentor’. And what of this mentor Heasley? This is the first mention we’ve had of a true Xavier/Magneto figure in this book, a person who ‘saved’ and trained a lost but gifted youth and set him on his ideological path. Until now it seemed like The Voice may have self-initiated this group and it’s political stance so the revelation that there was indeed an external actor who guided his development is an interesting one. No mention is made of Heasley’s fate, whether he is still out there or if he moved on from his experiment, or even what his actual powers were. This all serves to offer an increasingly rich history for this world and these characters, and will no doubt be the seeds of future stories, so it is wonderful to see these kind of world building details expertly integrated into the story. We get enough information to help drive the current narrative and provide a little more insight into The Voice as a person, but there is a wealth of valuable information left un-revealed.

It should come as no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of Simon Gane’s art and Jordie Bellaire’s colours on this book. Every issue is a joy to read and explore as the art works to craft a rich world, it truly serves to enhance the story at every turn. A few particularly brilliant panels from this issue included; the full page spread of The Voice in his hospital bed (the drab and overlapping blues and greys portraying a world of intense sadness and loss, whilst the tangled web of IVs and medical equipment speak to his complex and fundamentally broken emotional condition), the portrait of The Voice blood red against a collapsing tapestry of blocks (mirroring the pictures of his family and the way we are all made up of our experiences and influences), all of those family pictures, the info-graphic about The Voice’s relationship to his brothers, and the sudden starkness of Heasley’s intervention in The Voice’s life (all of the complexity and background sadness drops away as Heasley and The Voice become the only important entities in the world).

There are so many moments of intensity and drama in this issue; Maisie’s revelation that she attempted suicide (and her apparent resentment of Blurgirl and Moon), The Voice’s dark tragic history, Heasley’s existence, Blurgirl’s possible suicide, MiseryKid’s possible murder/betrayal, The Voice and team arriving at Syd’s parents house. This is a huge issue that reveals so much at the same time as casting doubt on everything we know and it is expertly delivered by an unstoppable creative team. The writing, art, colours, and lettering on this book are so consistently great that it is no wonder this is one of my absolute favourite reads each month. I really hope we get to see a long run from this team and this book because there is so much quality story left to be told.

They're Not Like Us #5 Panel

They’re Not Like Us #5 // Story – Eric Stephenson / Art – Simon Gane / Colours – Jordie Bellaire // Image

Notes and Observations:

  • The issue title is from another Stephen Duffy track, this time it’s both a lyric and the track title.
  • Interestingly the back page quote isn’t a lyric this time, but is actually a quote from former British intelligence officer Kim Philby who defected to the Soviet’s in 1963. It is an incredibly fitting if ambiguous quote for this issue – is this referring to the ‘betrayal’ of Syd by her friends as they may be on their way to kill her parents, the betrayal of The Voice’s parents, or is it relating to MiseryKid’s apparent betrayal by murder?
  • It is intriguing to see that Syd and The Voice’s parents are very well off; I wonder who many of these kids come from affluent backgrounds, and if that is a factor in their disaffection.

All art belongs to the copyright holders

Comics // Review // They’re Not Like Us #4

Concise

This issue offers some more glimpses into what is really going on with this group of gifted individuals, with a slower pace and some intriguing conversations. There are so many great threads to Syd’s story that it is rewarding to get some forward momentum on some of the unanswered questions, and the hint of revelations is more than enough to keep me in awe of this book. And if that weren’t enough then the art and colouring remain outstanding.

They're Not Like Us #4 Cover

Spoilerful

The tempo of this issue switches gear from the faster, more intense pace of training sessions and brutal beatings that we have seen recently, and instead offers up some rewarding scenes and surprising moments that drive Syd’s narrative forward. We know from Syd’s previous narration that she sticks around the group for a little while, but in this issue she begins to really question what is going on. Like Gruff last issue we are given more shading to one particular supporting character, this time it is Blurgirl as she confesses her nightmare (and almost more?) to Syd. Because we haven’t spent an awful lot of time with Blurgirl it is difficult to know if she is acting out of character here, but it is nice to see Syd question why she came to see her (can anything or anyone be trusted in this house?)

There have been some hints all along that The Voice was doing more than a little bit of mental manipulation so it was pleasing to see some of those suspicions confirmed – he has been keeping Syd’s own powers in check which seems like a reasonable thing to do, but at the same time he has caused every member of the group to forget their own names. This is an interesting revelation, especially in the context of this issue’s many conversations about killing Syd’s parents and severing ties with the past. It seems like The Voice could simply wipe people’s memories of their pasts, or at least wipe the memories of their parents, so why force them to kill them, is it all just a test of dedication and commitment? Similarly, why force everyone to suffer through the intense nightmares and regret of what they have done, surely The Voice could simply remove that guilt, unless he wants them to feel it? Not to mention that it seems like an oversight for him to let them ‘remember’ that he made them forget something. Of course, all of that is secondary to the mind games that are being played on Syd – did anything she experienced that night really happen that way, or have things been rearranged, removed, and replaced by The Voice, did she really complain about everyone’s code names (thank you for acknowledging the awkwardness of the name The Voice!) or did something else take place altogether? As readers all we know for sure is what we see when Syd isn’t present, anything else is fair game for false memories; I’m feeling more and more like Syd is in a lot of danger here.

Although we were introduced to the entirety of the group Stephenson has taken his time parsing through the characters, with the explored cast only slowly expanding a character or two at a time; this is the first time we’ve really seen much of Wire and Fagen, and Misery Kid also gets an opportunity to build on his appearance last issue with a few lines too (we still haven’t seen much of Runt at all). In fact that Misery Kid scene with The Voice, Maisie, and Loog was easily the darkest and most interesting of the issue – is the group considering exiling Syd (or worse) if she doesn’t kill her parents? Maisie remains a complete enigma, as Stephenson intends, with little of her true motivation or agenda really revealed, but it seems like a safe bet that with her ability to see the future she is manipulating events to her advantage in some way. The expressions of Loog and Misery Kid as the walk away are pretty insightful too, Loog clearly angry that Syd might be disposed of, whilst Misery Kid has more than a hint of satisfaction on his face (what is his game? I need to know!)

The ominous tone, complex character arcs, and slowly unveiling mystery of this story are all incredibly compelling, but time and again I find myself drawn deeper into this world by the wonderful art team of Simon Gane and Jordie Bellaire. Gane’s art possesses a rich and patterned depth and he is at home illustrating foreboding nightmare woods as he is at drawing plush and distractingly comfortable house/prisons. I am particularly taken with how Gane draws the fabrics, folds, and creases in clothing, giving everything a lived in tangibility. Take for instance the light creeping in presumably through a window onto the face of Moon/Syd whilst she lies in bed or the glowing intensity of Blurgirl’s dream that opens the issue. And then there difference in lighting and shadow between the bright dinning room (where the powerful characters talk) compared to the murky dusk of the other rooms (where the confused and scared characters talk) that serves to illustrate just how the Voice and Maisie can see everything and everyone clearly whilst most of the others only see things partially.

Every issue of this book brings something new to the table, whilst continuing to enhance and explore what has come before, and the beginnings of Syd’s misgivings about The Voice (and the confessions of others) is really starting to drive this story into unfamiliar territory. Syd is a winning character, and her ‘friends’ are all very intriguing to say the least. This is a story that threatens to step wholly into the superhero, and thriller, and crime, and mystery genres at any moment; instead it expertly manages to draw great elements from them all, and maintains an intense central drama rooted in complex characters. This is great storytelling matched with great art – simply put this is a great book.

They're Not Like Us #4 Panel

They’re Not Like Us #4 // Story – Eric Stephenson / Art – Simon Gane / Colours – Jordie Bellaire // Image

Notes and Observations:

  • I don’t recall seeing Wire’s cat before, but I might have missed it. It’s cute!
  • The continued low-key use of powers like Blurgirl super-speeding to the top of the stairs and Moon’s illusions is inventive, both visually and in how it furthers plot and characterisation; in particular the use of illusory powers in sexual roleplay makes a lot of sense, but it didn’t stop me feeling more than a little sad for Moon.
  • So it is looking increasingly like my Misery Kid hero-watch is a fools errand. Guess I will need to start my new game – Maisie: friend or foe?!
  • The issue name comes from the title of a track by the Jam. The back page quote comes from musician Stephen Duffy’s song C’est La Vie, C’est La Guerre which is impossible to listen to on the entire internet!

All art belongs to the copyright holder