December 30, 2014

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Rob's Favorite Speculative Stories for 2014

Good Grief! It's December 30th! Maybe I could move to Mars, where I'd have over 600 days to fret over whether I'd gotten to all the amazing comics that featured themes of speculative fiction.

Or I could just accept that there's only so many comics I can read in a year, and at some point, you have to accept that you won't be one of the cool kids putting Wrenchies on your 2014 list. (In my defense, I have to prioritize my reading for Panel Patter, and when Scott covered the book for us, it meant it was no longer at the top of the pile. I am looking forward to catching up to it in 2015, however, as I love Farel's work!)

So this is one of the revamped lists. In the past, I had a single list for horror and then a second list for general indie books that weren't about superheroes. This year, I've moved away from the form of comic and concentrated on the genre of comic. Now I could easily have made 3 lists--one for horror, one for sci-fi, and one for fantasy, but as Erica kindly pointed out to me, listing 30 favorites hardly makes it seem like there's anything special about them. So I spent entirely too much time agonizing, and put this list of 15 together instead. 

Understand this year was an embarrassment of riches when it comes to comics with speculative themes. Horror anthologies abounded, with Dark Horse's Creepy and Eerie, Rachel Deering's epic In the Dark, and even a Boston comics collective putting together great, short horror that I want to recognize here but didn't quite make the final cuts. We had not just one but two Godzilla series from IDW coming out at the same time. Pretty Deadly intrigued us with gorgeous art and a complex story. I could practically have made a list just of speculative webcomics, and in the end, two made the final cut. Thunderbird and All Night were also very, very good, but as I said above, I had to make hard decisions. The competition was so tight, John Bynre's surprisingly good Star Trek photo comics couldn't crack a spot, nor was the intrigue of Letter 44 or the all-ages fun of Joey Weiser's Mermin (both from Oni). All of those are titles I'd easily recommend, but when the dust cleared, the 15 below are those that just stuck with me all year and wouldn't let go.

These were my 15 favorite speculative fiction comics in 2014, with a few words on each as they appear in alphabetical order:


Adventure Time and Its Spin-Off Books (BOOM!) Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb, Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover, Wook Jin Clark, Jim Rugg, and Others
While Finn and Jake might have preferred hanging out in the Superhero category, I placed the gang from the land of Ooo here, because at heart it's a world filled with speculative elements, especially fantasy. I'm a big fan of the cartoon and I've followed the comics since they started. This past year marked an all-time high for the BOOM! adaptations, including the zine issue and the 25th issue, both of which featured some great mini-comics creators like Liz Prince, Carey Pietsch, and Jeffrey Brown. It culminated in a "final" issue for the North/Paroline/Lamb team, which brought back all of the main characters and an insane, digressive plot that was a hallmark of North's scripting. Limited series in 2014 included the batshit insane Flip Side from Tobin/Coover/Clark, where everything became mixed up thanks to a questing mistake from Finn and Jake, and a showcase for side characters in the Banana Guard Academy. 

All of these series recognized the fun, gag-filled essence of the show, with a touch of heartfelt meaning thrown in, and they played the characters perfectly, especially the Ice King, who is my favorite character. Visually, Paroline and Lamb set the tone and everyone else followed. Their Ooo looked very much like the show, but also gave the characters freedom to be themselves, while always ensuring the visuals set up (or finished) North's gags. The same was true for Clark, who really had fun with Jake, and the other creators, whether they did just a few pages or longer arcs.

I can't imagine anyone with a sense of fun not liking Adventure Time. You don't even have to really know the show to love the comics. You just have to like keeping a sense of wonder and a love of the absurd. Check out BOOM's adaptations if you haven't yet!


Bodies (Vertigo) Si Spencer, Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Tula Lotay, Meghan Hetrick, and Lee Loughridge
What's more fun than just science fiction or just a mystery? A science fiction mystery! That's especially true when the murder victims appear to be slipping across the time stream from present-day Britain to its Jack the Ripper moments to the Blitz and into the future. With each era's police force baffled and looking for clues (while being blocked by varying obstacles depending on the conventions of the time), the result is something that several creators can try, but very few are able to pull of. Spencer nails this, creating interesting characters for each time period and allowing various artists to play to their strengths, rather than look for one who can do it all. I rarely read Vertigo books these days but this one is a book I kept track of month to month, and is going to be amazing to re-read in trade and watch all the pieces get put together. It's no mystery that this one is great science fiction!

Bold Riley (Northwest Press) Leia Weathington, Jonathan Dalton, and Zack Giallongo
The adventures of Bold Riley continue, as she works to overcome her sorrow at the loss of her lover in the events of the first trade, encountering talking bones that drink almost as much booze as she does and a magical weaver who has some thoughts on Riley's future as this sword and sorcery tale that features a female character going about, Conan-style across a world full of magic, adventure, death--and really pretty women for the heroine (although there's less of that so far this year). Weathington is great at taking what's amazing about the old pulp stories of Robert E. Howard and others and making them something that's far more inclusive. I've written a lot about how good this series is, and I look forward to the rest of the second arc in 2015.

Copperhead (Image) Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, and Ron Riley
Space Western! Yay! A new sheriff is in town, and she's not playing nice with the status quo, pushing a passed-over deputy to work harder, going right into places of power, and trying to track down a killer who just might also be the same being that saved her son when she was otherwise occupied. It's easy to see the Western influences Faerber works into the mix, but there's a feeling of modernity, not the least of which is that the Sheriff is a woman and there's no old-fashioned dialogue or lengthy set-up. Things happen fast and furious, and Godlewski's easily able to make the world feel alien and yet have a touch of the Wild West, in the way he portrays a criminal family or a drunken doctor. The creatures are nice, varied, and yet humanoid, as this ongoing caught fire for me right away--and is well worth catching up on now, while it's still early yet.

Doctors (Fantagraphics) Dash Shaw
A complicated process can go into the mind of a dead person and bring them back--for a price, of course, which goes past just money in this short science fiction piece by Dash Shaw that works in the longstanding tradition of cautionary tales about the unthinking push of technology. We follow a dual path as the machine's creator and one of its rescues slowly start to have their lives fall apart, culminating in tragedy. The story is very strong, and Shaw's pacing has the spiral start slowly, then build to its inevitable conclusion. It's a very creepy concept, to be sure as well. And that would have made it a good comic, but what puts it on this list is the innovative use of shifting color to dominate each page of the book, something our own A.J. McGuire will be discussing in an upcoming post in early 2015. I under-read from Fantagraphics this year, but this is one you shouldn't miss.

Eth's Skin (Self-Published at http://eths-skin.tumblr.com) Sfe Monster and Kory Bing
The first of two webcomics on the list, this series features a gender ambiguous main character who fishes, is good friends with a mermaid who doesn't care about modesty (this may be the most times you'll ever see the term "mer-tits" without it being creepy or oversexualized), has friends who make bad deals with fairies, and as of the most recent pages, a skin of a selkie they'd rather not own. Written with extremely playful (and sometimes snarky dialogue), Sfe draws us piece by piece into Eth's world, its relation to magic, and the fact that life is about to become increasingly complicated for the main character. The pages are laid out giving a strong sense of setting without overdoing the details, and the figure work is top-notch, creating Eth and their companions as distinctive figures that are instantly recognizable on the page. Sfe's style is similar to CCS, but has a stronger emphasis on grey tones. I also love Sfe's framing work on the panels and larger pages. These characters move, live, and breathe across the screen, click by click. Bing inks this softly, giving the whole thing a sense of whimsy because it's not filled with sharp lines or over-dramatic blacks. Highly recommended for fantasy fans who need a new webcomic or are looking to expand in that genre of comics.

Fatale (Image) Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The Brubaker and Phillips team has been working together for so many years right now, that it's actually a bit odd when I don't see both names together, like re-reading Marvel Zombies (the first, good one) or enjoying Velvet when it comes out. Fatale was a lovely blending of horror and gore with bullets and blood, as the main character brought woe to any man who fell under her literal spell. With Brubaker's spot-on plotting and ability to make you want to read about really shitty people and Philips' linework knowing just what to reveal--and when to conceal--when the horror hit the fan, this was a joy to read issue by issue and as a whole. It was a great series, and stacks up as one of my favorite collaborations between the pair.

Grindhouse (Dark Horse) Alex de Campi, Simon Fraser, R.M. Guera, 
Gary Erskine, and Others
The drive-in is translated to the printed page, as Alex de Campi draws on her impressive knowledge of the grindhouse genre (which she points out was ironically far more progressive than current movie-makers and is unfairly maligned in this regard) to create a mini-anthology series where each story is two issues long. That allows her to vary the story to match the artist involved and gives her no room to play, so each issue is filled to the brim with action and characters who make up in broad strokes for what they may lack in depth. The highlight here is the two-part prison ship story (which came in out singles in 2013, but was collected in trade in 2014) where a series of bodily (and racially) diverse woman who are locked up at the hands of a sadistic warden finally decide they've had enough and take over. The art, like the stories, is gleefully over-the-top but never falls into exploitation, even when drawing naked folks, and when men act like pigs, they tend to get theirs in the end. It's a lot of fun for horror fans and anyone excited about Bitch Planet should make sure they go back and look for the two-trade set and the new ongoing mini-series.

Lumberjanes (BOOM!) Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Maarta Laiho
This breakout hit from BOOM!'s BOOM BOX line opens with five young girl campers in the woods fighting 3-eyed foxes and making Little Red Riding Hood jokes while beating the creatures back and trying to sneak back into camp, where their house leader isn't pleased but the camp head finds promise in the plucky kids. So did everyone who read this comic, taking a mini-series and turning it into an ongoing that founds girl comic readers all over donning Lumberjanes badges and finding inspiration in badly-needed positive character who look just like them. The art is outstanding, too, looking a bit like animation, with the backgrounds muted and the main characters taking center stage. Each girl has visual clues that make them easy to spot in any scene, ranging from size to hats to hairstyle, and the adventures they get in aren't just limited to the great outdoors, either, as caves and other secrets await.

While I love that this one has a great premise for young, female readers, I also appreciate that it's got a story line that anyone can follow as long as they have a sense of fun. The girls each get their own personality and quirks, which often are just the right thing for them in a jam, and the references to stuff like Indiana Jones are great for the parents (and older non-parents) reading along. The one character's "What the Junk?" catch phrase kinda drives me nuts, but watching poor Jen, their guardian, try to keep up gives them a solid straight "man" in the girl-power comic that's highly recommended.

Madame Frankenstein (Image) Jamie S. Rich and Megan Levens
My classic monster itch was scratched nicely by this story from a favorite creator (Jamie) and a new favorite creator (Megan), as they combined for what I think is best called F. Scott Fitzgerald's Frankenstein. An inventor from a poor family, Vincent, decides to prove his superiority by bringing the dead to life in the form of a young woman he loved. His desperation to be proved right and get one up on all those who looked down on him drive his madness, which leads to tragedy, as this story heads towards an explosive climax. An amazing example of a period piece, Levens depicts the Jazz Age in all its glory (not sure that's the right word, guess it depends on how well you like the 1920s), using techniques from manga, great control of black and white swaths of "color." and panel construction that heightens the drama and periodically echoes the Karloff-headed movies. Meanwhile, Jamie writes his usual solid dialogue for a horror story that's both terrifying and tragic.

Meteor Men (Oni) Jeff Parker, Sandy Jarrell, and Kevin Volo
Man, 2014 was a kick-ass year for Jeff Parker. In addition to keeping the Batman 66 ship steady, he also took Aquaman off the brink of drowning in its own angst, flashed his pulp muscles for Dynamite on Flash Gordon, and all of that wasn't even his best achievement of 2014, which is Meteor Men. James really did an amazing job reviewing this one for us, and I already covered it as part of the 2014 Gift Guide, but I can't stress enough how well-constructed this graphic novel is. Working with 
line artist Sandy Jarrell and color artist Kevin Volo, Jeff brings us a young man who gets caught up in something far larger than he--or really, anyone else on Earth--can handle. Aliens have arrived, and they may be more forceful and aggressive than anything we've ever encountered before. Mixing in themes from all the first encounter stories that have come before, Jeff takes parts from them like he's mining Marvel Comics for old continuity to spark his X-Men: First Class or Agents of Atlas series. It a trick you kinda have to have written for the Big Two to fully manage, I think. 

In the end, while Jarrell and Volo create a world that feels so much like ours and yet aliens that are totally apart from it, Jeff slams the reader face-first with a dramatic decision that closes the book and makes you think long, long after reading. I'm still debating it, even now, months later. This is everything that creator-owned comics can be, and was one of my favorite comics of 2014. I can't recommend it enough.

Oh Human Star (Self-Published at http://ohumanstar.com) Blue Delliquanti
A genius robotics tech has a complicated relationship with his gay lover, and when they're on the cusp of a breakthrough, he's dead. Flash forward 16 years, and he's resurrected in a robot body, only to find that his former lover and partner has re-created him--in the form of a young, female robot. What does it all mean? Why is the inventor back now, and how do they work out the complicated nature of the new dynamics? It's a great, original premise that uses queer characters but doesn't make them feel shoe-horned. Their lives (and new lives) feel very organic (pardon the pun), the history between them comes out between scenes set in the current day, and the coloring--going from blue to burnt orange. Blue's linework is really slick, with Alastir (the robot) looking a bit angular even when he's human and his lover more rounded, giving them a nice contrast. Her world is detailed when it needs to be, but fades out if the focus needs to go on the characters. Nice, thick ink work creates bold lines for a very clean feel that's distinctive. It's a great series and well worth catching up on, either by buying a print copy or reading page by page online.

Umbral (Image) Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten
If someone asked me to name a work that was my textbook definition of the term "Dark Fantasy" I would hand them a copy of Umbral. This series from Wasteland collaborators Johnston and Mitten opens with horrendous, purple-black creatures that are taking over the medieval-level fantasy world of Rascal, and only her secret friendship with a royal clues her into the deadly danger all around her. Gathering a ragtag band of untrustworthy companions, she's not out to save the say so much as just keep alive. This one does so much right, from making sure that the reader can't trust their own eyes (while not feeling like they're playing false) to having a girl as the lead character to some of the most amazing and creepy monster designs I saw in a comic in 2014. The second volumes keeps up the pressure and pace, and this remains one of my favorite series--and a good bet to return to this list in 2015.

Wayward (Image) Jim Zub, Steve Cummings, Tamra Bonvillan, and Others
A child of Irish and Japanese parents moves to Japan to live with her mother and discovers she has powers that link her to mythological forces, some of which are out to kill her in this new and surprisingly gritty urban fantasy that really captured my attention from the first issue. Zub is of course an excellent plotter, and this is no exception, as he moves things along a break-neck past that's more analogous to Jack Kirby than Jonathan Hickman. Keeping pace is Steve Cummings, who uses the fact that he lives in Japan to give this series a very realistic feel, if the real world included girls who channel the power of cats, a teen boy who eats spirits, and toad men that look like extra from Super Mario Brothers. Despite the young age of the cast, it's very much an adult book, and while set in Japan, it's not OEL manga work, either. This is a fun, fast-paced fantasy whose first volume just wrapped up, making this a perfect time to jump on.

Wicked + Divine (Image) Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson
This is the story of why I try to give most comics at least an arc if I can before making my decision on them. Issue one of this series featuring millennials turning into gods for two brief years before they flame out again came out with a bang, and a lot of hype. I never really read the books that others did to have a history with the creative team, and after the first issue, which was clearly centered around and written for people who are nearly a generation behind me, I thought it was okay, but not amazing. But I'm a sucker for mythology, and so I kept going, because it wasn't like I thought it was shit or anything. Just not something I'd have given a 10/10 in my old Newsarama days. A lot of this had to do with Lucifer, a Bowie-like character who didn't give a damn about what others thought and lured a girl of similar age into the world of temporary gods. 

Then issue five happened, and all hell broke loose, as Gillen and McKelvie broke the heart of cosplayers everywhere and showed they weren't messing around. That fifth issue hit me like a punch to the comics-loving center of my brain, and when issue six hit, I read it immediately, as the story moved on and Lucifer's legacy continued. Not unlike Ms. Marvel, this is a book targeted to a younger generation of comics fans, but doesn't try to pander. It's very organic, and works so amazingly well.  Gillen's created a mystery around these figures and how they'll change life in an era where things are no longer dictated from the top down--if the younger generation steps in to take the power they hold. Meanwhile McKelvie's lines are so very slick, it's a really beautiful book to look at, even when there's nothing dramatic happening. My biggest surprise of 2014, and I can't wait to see what 2015 holds for this one. 

Wicked Chicken Queen (Retrofit) Sam Alden 
Man, Sam Alden quickly became someone I really dig as a creator, so it's no surprise to find him here on the Retrofit roster, with a story about a fantasy world where a group of creatures decided that a giant chicken should be their queen. This does not go very well, let me tell you. The pages often tell multiple parts of the ongoing story without the benefit of a panel break, everything is completely surreal, and the coloring, which you can see from the cover above, is just off-putting enough to give the entire thing the final touch of surreal weirdness that's right up my alley. This is the only mini-comic on the speculative fiction list, because managing to create a sci-fi or fantasy world isn't easy within the constraints of a mini, and the others I read that did so well were from other years and I didn't get to the Study Group stuff in time, sadly. This one shows exactly why mini-comics will always be a part of my reading routine and should be a part of yours.

Honorable Mention to: Amelia Cole (Monkeybrain/IDW) an amazing all-ages magical romp that has really shown the depth and potential its early issues promised, Black Science (Image) which features gorgeous work from Matteo Scalero, Starlight (Image), in which a man who was a Flash Gordon-like hero is called upon in his dotage to save a distant planet and proves Mark Millar can write well when he tries, and The Fuse (Image), which is a really cool police procedural set in space from Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood,