January 2, 2018

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Mike's 10 . . . no 13 . . . Favorites Things about 2017


2017 will certainly enter the annals of history for a multitude of mostly embarrassing reasons. Like always, the world of comics, cartooning, and . . . um . . . original graphic novelling . . . I don't know. Where was I? Oh yes, the sequential art community did the three things it has done since comic strips started to appear in newspapers - nay! since cavemen created the first cave drawings. Creators provided the necessary element of escapism, they comforted us with the continued stories of characters we have grown to love, and they provided the satiric response to an increasingly satire-worthy world at large.

With that being said, I'm going to (briefly . . . no, I lie) discuss the ten things - books, concepts, writers, trends, etc - that had the most positive affect on me as a reader. I have a love for the form of comics as a whole, everything from Superman to Berlin, from Brian Michael Bendis to Derf Backderf. I hope you enjoy this list, and perhaps pick up something you hadn't originally thought to read this year.

This list follows in no particular order, save for the first, most important event of 2017:

1. Wonder Woman Gives Us the Hero We Both Need and Deserve

I'm a DC guy. I have no negative attitude towards Marvel, and I like many Marvel books. At heart, though, I'm DC through and through. DC fans oft find themselves on the defensive, much like Pepsi drinks or Mets fans do. Nowhere did we have to defend ourselves more than in the realm of the extended universe. Never mind that DC has and continues to produce great animated movies and shows, nor that DC's television has been incredibly successful.* Movies that didn't include some combination of Batman/Tim Burton/Christopher Nolan each managed to miss the target in downright baffling ways.

Then came a glimmer of hope in an otherwise depressing affair. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman stole the climatic fight scene of the downright abortive Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I was still trepadacious as my wife and I entered the theater for Wonder Woman, but I left mesmerized. 

Gal Gadot is radiant and triumphant as Diana of Themyscira. Not since Downey's original Iron Man performance has casting be this near to perfect for a comic character. She exudes the courage and optimism that we long time fans of Wonder Woman yearned to see. As a result, Wonder Woman marked a tonal turning point for the DCEU, and (hopefully) redefined the direction for future films.

The movie embraced feminism in a "showing is better than telling" format that I found touching and unique. In lesser hands, this film would have been more of the same DC dirge. Patty Jenkins, though, demonstrated her chops. I would love to see he direct not only future Wonder Woman installments, but also other entries into the DCEU, hopefully alongside her cinematographer Matthew Jensen, whose extreme close-up shots juxtaposed with wide angle views created a beautiful homage to comics as a storytelling form. 

Finally, as an educator, this movie will always hold a special place in my heart because of the droves of little girls who emerged from school buses at the beginning of the school year with Wonder Woman schoolbags, headbands, and sweatshirts. It's about time that our young ladies have the same type of cultural icon as our boys who idolize Batman or Spider-man.

* I don't watch any of the DC television shows. I tried, and they just don't do it for me. However, there are plenty of people who love them, so my opinion might not be the most valid. 
** As an aside, a non-comics friend complained to me after seeing Thor: Ragnarok that the titular character and Wonder Woman have never appeared in a movie together. Immediately, nerd neurons started firing, and I was ready to explain to him the differences between the two major shared universes over the course of a few beers. But then it occurred to me that I would truly love to see that film. So I paused, reflected, and told my buddy that I wholeheartedly agreed.

2. Being 90s and Indie is Cool Again

90s trends have permeated fashion for a few years now, and they've seen their way into comics as well. What once was anathema is now novel, mostly because, like many of our misguided 90s endeavors, technology has finally caught up to good ideas. Five to ten years ago, we might have laughed at lenticular variants or chromium covers, but now . . . 

We can't talk about the 90s, though, wihtout discussing DC's original mature readers line and the subsequent creation of the Vertigo imprint. The core of what Vertigo did seems to be experiencing a revival. Vertigo gave you exactly what it advertised on its covers, comics suggested for mature readers. True, most Vertigo, especially in the early days, skewed to horror, but the imprint was truly a mixture of many elements of comicdom (also not a word). It was essentially an Americanization of an amalgamation of British and Continental comics, i.e., it published mature genre comics that weren't exclusively superhero in nature: sci-fi, horror, fantasy, crime. It was equal parts Humanoids and 2000 AD, filtered through an American lens. 
Mother Panic, the only Young Animal title to
feature a newly created protagonist, has
been a wonderful read.
2017 saw a number of Vertigo-esque revivals. The clearest successor to Vertigo is DC's Young Animal, the imprint curated by former DC intern, Umbrella Academy author, and My Chemical Romance frontman, Gerard Way, with initial assistance from then Vertigo editor, Shelly Bond. A spiritual successor to the original DC mature readers line that morphed into Vertigo, Young Animal pulls from the fringes of DC continuity and offers "superhero" comics that are outside of the mainstream appeal. Launching with the Way-penned Doom Patrol, Young Animal revived the tropes if not the content of early Vertigo. Young Animal may have launched in late 2016, but it hit its stride in 2017 as its series completed their first arcs, the first collections hit the stands, and the critically acclaimed Bug: The Adventures of Forager helped usher renewed New Gods interest (along with its spiritual cousin, Mister Miracle, a book that could have easily fallen under the Young Animal banner).

Speaking of Shelly Bond . . . Amidst the DC restructuring, the Warners fired the long time Vertigo editor in 2016. Nonetheless, she struck a deal with IDW to bring her own vision to a company mostly known for its licensed properties. IDW's connections with both 2000 AD and Top Shelf Productions may have helped to make this an attractive landing spot for the woman who worked at Vertigo for thirteen years. Regardless, Bond has brought two great tweener comics to the stands in 2017 via her Black Crown imprint - Kid Lobotomy by Peter Milligan and Tess Fowler, and Assassinistas by Tini Howard and Gilbert Hernandez.

And finally, although Berger Books won't officially launch until the end of January, one would be remiss not to mention the new imprint of the Vertigo founding editor when discussing a revival of 90s era indie style. Karen Berger is a comics goddess, and I am incredibly excited to see what she brings with her new Dark Horse imprint.

3. Webcomics of the Resistance

Veteran comics artist and webcomic creator Mike Norton's "Lil' Donnie" is a great blend of political satire and sight-gag comedy. 
Some things happened in 2017. You might not have noticed? Comics have always provided a forum satire and parody, so it was only a matter of time before we began to see our narcissist in chief lampooned in comic form. We live in a world in which Texas, a state that if it were a sovereign nation would have an economic output equal to that of Brazil, does not have a political cartoonist employed as a staff member of any newspaper. And no, I don't mean not a single liberal editorial cartoonist. Not a single one - regardless of political leaning. Webcomics have been relevant for quite some time, but they're increasingly vital in the Twitter-induced hyperreality in which we currently reside.
"So How's Trump Working Out for You" by Tom Tomorrow @ thenib.com

The go-to site for resistance comics is undoubtedly The Nib. While the site doesn't exclusively publish political material, it focuses on non-fiction comics that tell diverse stories and naturally lean left. Clearly, given the events of 2016 and 2017 (oh god, Google just told me it started in 2015), political satire has been the main feature of The Nib. Featuring work from comic strip royalty, including Shannon Wheeler, Ted Rall, and Tom Tomorrow, as well as established vets such as editor Matt Lubchansky, Ben Passmore and Emily Flake, The Nib offers a coterie of well-informed, well-researched, and well-executed non-fiction and satiric comics. If you haven't been subscribing to their daily newsletter, I'd recommend making it your New Year's resolution. *

Another excellent webcomic, and one that would fit in well with the tone of The Nib, is Mike Norton's Lil' Donnie, available at gocomics.com. Norton is well known in the world of webcomics for having created the popular Battlepug series, and he is equally well known to traditional comic fans for series such as Revival. What makes Norton's Lil' Donnie a consistently fun read is the way Norton layers his humor. It would be easy to write scathing political commentary. Norton lets his characters be the willfully ignorant (semi) exaggerations of themselves in a Swiftian style akin to vintage Stephen Colbert. His ability to blend basic sight gags (Trump's tiny hand size, Paul Ryan's cutoff shirts), non-sequitur zaniness (Mitch McConnell as a Satanic-cursed Appalachian apple core doll, Kelly Conway as a poltergeist), and an astute analysis of current events makes Lil' Donnie an absolutely mandatory read heading in to 2018.

* Mine is to learn Esperanto

4. Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's Superman/Peter Tomasi's Super Sons

If it's wrong that Gleason's Superman isn't darn near iconic, I don't want to be right.

It's no secret to Superman fans that DC Rebirth has been a boon for the Big Blue Boy Scout. Superman has languished a bit since Final Crisis times. The New 52 iteration was scattered with tonal inconsistencies, bizarre characterization, and confusing story direction.

Cue Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, who have managed to bring the character back to his roots via their holistic model of storytelling. Since the duo started their collaborative efforts on Green Lantern Corps circa the Sinestro Corps War story line, they have been a remarkable and consistent team for DC comics, tackling big characters with more personal stories. As spectacular as the Snyder/Capullo New 52 Batman run was, Tomasi and Gleason's Batman and Robin was equally impressive, and served as the cathartic fifth act of Grant Morrison's Batman opus. 

And they're doing the same thing for Superman in the Rebirth world. Though Action Comics carries more of the prestige and intrigue with its stronger connection to the Mr. Oz storyline and the lead up to Doomsday Clock, Tomasi and Gleason's series provides the heart for Superman, functioning as a return to form for a character than had been struggling with a firm identity for quite some time. 

Kudos to Tomasi and Gleason for their ability to dig deep into two of the most iconic characters in all of comics to provide personal stories amidst events and world building and continuity crises.
Tomasi's Super Sons, a title he pens solo, is arguably DC's most consistent book. If I were writing a traditional "best of" list, Super Sons would earn by "best new series" designation.

5. My Favorite thing is My Favorite Things is Monsters 

I'm not going to be blazing any new territory here with an inclusion of the critically acclaimed debut of Emil Ferris on an end of year "best of" list. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is showing up on almost every critic's list, and said ranking is incredibly well deserved. Ferris created an expansive tapestry of emotion that deftly bridges memoir and commentary. She channels literature and comix, being equal parts Octavia Butler and R. Crumb. It is easy to get lost in the pages of this work, to almost forger that it is a creative endeavor and not the actual journal or sketchbook of a a young girl.
I don't know. I don't think I have the words to describe everything that Ferris achieves in this publication. (Image Credit: Boing Boing)
More than anything else, Ferris teaches us three important things in My Favorite Thing is Monsters. First, important stories are worth telling. For every time Marvel flubs an attempt to monetize being woke, companies like Fantagraphics (who had a stellar year, btw) publish books like this. Second, the literary value of the graphic novel form is ever growing. Third, the capacity of the human spirit to create is both undeniable and unstoppable. Yes, Monsters is making everyone's list this year, but it damn well deserves to. It will also make everyone's "best of the decade" or "best comics of the last thirty years" lists down the line.

6. Bringing Back Newsprint

Fledgling indie publish Alterna Comics made a big splash this year with it's "Bringing Back Newsprint" campaign. Alterna has managed to tap into nostalgia and bring about a fond remembrance of not just the style of comics from years gone by, but the feel and the availability.
The touching Metaphase, a superhero graphic novel
whose protagonist has Down Syndrome, has
earned the company national attention.
Here's the lowdown. Alterna publishes their single issues exclusively on newsprint. No issue tops $2.00 on the stands. They delay the release of digital issues in order to promote in store purchases. Digital copies average 50 cents less than their print counterparts when they debut on Comixology. Their publishing slate is diverse, including some remarkable strong all-ages material. The company rewarded loyalty to their line by sending gifts to comic shops for customers who have three or more Alterna titles on their pull lists. It worked outside traditional distribution channels to get its books into Toys R' Us, Five Below, and bookstore chains Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million. Towards the end of July, Alterna struck a deal to bring their books to newstands, yet they are still committed to the direct market because newstand distribution, including bookstores, is targeted at areas without local comic stores. (Neither the Barnes and Noble nor Books-a-Million in my county sell Alterna comics as we have four comic shops). Alterna also published a groundbreaking graphic novel, Metaphase, featuring a superhero protagonist with Down Syndrome that earned the creators and the company air time on NBC. To hammer all of this goodwill home, this year, Alterna released its Kickstarter funded horror film, The Chair, that features Roddy Piper's last on-screen work before his death.

Seriously, what's not to like about this company.
Amazing Age has tapped my nostalgia gene. It is my pick for all-ages comic of the year.

7. Fantastic Archival Editions

There are usually two types of reprints: a quick and cheap trade paperback designed to appease the masses, and well-crafted, usually hardbound archival editions that show appropriate reverence for the original material. Two of the latter stood out to me this year.

Cosmic Odyssey by Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola, published by DC Comics
An early year offering, DC's deluxe edition of the 1988 prestige format miniseries is one of the many New Gods reprints we saw this year. DC can publish a beautiful archival edition if they see fit, and Cosmic Odyssey is indicative of that ability. The oversized hardcover features beautiful paper stock and crisp colors that allow the groundbreaking art to shine through.

Uncle Scrooge: The Lost Crown of Genghis Kahn, by Carl Barks, published by Fantagraphics.
Fantagraphics is a company that will not let it's readers down with the respect it shows for its creators' material, be it a new OGN or a archival reissue. The Carl Barks and Don Rosa reprints have been wonderful since original publication, featuring artwork re-colored by hand, over-sized pages, and high quality, thick paper stock. I'm inclined to like the various Disney Duck adventures, but even if I weren't, these books would still be standouts. They are even more special because they represent what is increasingly becoming a bygone tradition in the world of cartooning. Sure, we will always have excellent cartoonists creating new work, but we're unlikely to see a master like Don Rosa or Carl Barks freely creating new content for a major multimedia company like Disney. It's great that Fantagraphics exists to ensure this material stays relevant, and it's equally impressive that someone at Disney takes this content serious enough to make sure it ends up in the right hands.

8. New God Revival

I was generally disappointed by the overall celebration of the Kirby centennial. DC released a line of one-shots featuring the King's DC creations. They were fine, but they were one-shots and, by definition, existed entirely in a vacuum. The effort felt almost like an afterthought. Marvel released a bunch of True Believer $1.00 reprints and managed not to recognize their own town deaf irony, because they are, we must remember, Marvel Comics, and that's kind of what they do. Overall, I felt neither major publisher did enough to acknowledge one of the most important creator in comics, especially in a year that included three very profitable films featuring Kirby creations*. Mostly, I'm still upset Kirby didn't receive a Google Doodle in his honor after what I thought was a strong campaign. Seriously, there's no argument that Jack Kirby's legacy does not warrant a Google Doodle**.

Maybe I'm a bit biased. I believe that Kirby deserves much more respect that he gets, especially outside the bubble of comics. In a just world, Jack Kirby would be a household name alongside Stan Lee. When we discuss the creative visionaries of 20th century American culture, his name should be there. But I digress.

Bug The Adventures Of Forager #5 (of 6)
Bug: The Adventures of Forager was
one of my favorite Superhero minis of
the year.
What we did receive, though, were two beautiful New Gods series, one that paid direct homage to all of Kirby's DC creations, and one that deconstructed his most enduring DC hero. There's a Kirby divide out there, but I'm of the camp that thinks New Gods Kirby was peak King.

Bug: The Adventures of Forager by the Allreds and published by DC Young Animal was a boon for all Kirby and Allred fans. I would love to see the three Allreds team up again, especially on something New Gods related. The trio created a trippy, Kirby-worth homage that not only celebrated the whole of the King's DC creations, but also functioned as a meditation on the meaning of death and the subsequent nature of death within the world of comics.

On the other end of the spectrum is Tom King and Mitch Gerads's Mister Miracle. Earlier in this post, I discussed the revival of the "Vertigo style," and no book feels more like the proto-Vertigo late 80s/early 90s DC mature readers line than Mister Miracle. After reading this book, the reader is likely left with two feelings. The first is somewhat normal, "Wow, this book was spectacular. I can't wait for next month." The second is a little more grandiose, "Man, there should be a constitutional amendment that makes Tom King and Mitch Gerads collaborate on every comic." This series is trippy in a completely different manner than Bug. Half the time, I'm not even sure I know what's going on. It doesn't feel like a superhero comic in any way, and though that's not necessarily a unique feeling for a deconstruction piece, King and Gerads pull off the breakdown in utterly superb fashion. Before I get off on a tangent, I'll end with this statement that I think distills the core intent of Mister Miracle: It is fundamentally a love letter written to Grant Morrison about how great Jack Kirby is. 

* I know that Guardians Vol. 2 is a bit of stretch considering the fact the our Groot has been more or less retconned away from the original conception, and the Guardians version of Ego took major liberties with the character . . . but still. And, as an aside there, where was Dynamite in all of this? 
** Here is a list of Google Doodles. I'm not going to dispute any of them, but I will point out that a number of figures have Doodles for non-milestone years. The 56th anniversary of Traffic Light Man? Jan Ingenhousz’s 287th Birthday? Really? And we can't get a doodle for the man who drew Captain America punching Hitler a year before the U.S. entered WWII? I swear. 

9. Vault Comics 

I wish I had a clever heading to celebrate my other favorite indie publisher of 2017, but I don't. Simply put, Vault published a number of incredibly solid books that tapped into a number of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy sub-genres. I first came across Vault via Enormous creator Tim Daniel's Spirtus, and I quickly circled back to discover Natasha Alterici's stunning re-imagining of Viking myth, Heathen. Alterici's book is a touching rendition, an allegorical tale of sexual exile beautifully set against the backdrop of Norse culture. Alterici brilliantly uses the Norse gods and Viking culture metaphorically, cutting daggers into our own modern conceptions of warrior culture and sexual identify.
The Kickstarter for Heather Volume 2 nearly doubled its asking goal.

In addition to Spirtus and Heathen, Vault also published the second volume of a personal favorite, Ragmop. If you are unfamiliar with Rob Walton's 90s indie series, the time could not have been better for its return. The original Ragmop debuted in the mid 90s and was a beautiful satire of 90s culture. Walton's genius was in his ability to satirize both ends of the spectrum. For instance, he mocked both conspiracy theorists and the existence of actual governmental conspiracies. Walton rewrote and updated his original story in 2006, but his Vault webcomic series is an entirely new creation. 

Vault is also set to launch its new creator-owner shared universe, Cult Classic. A number of smaller publishers have tried to create a shared universe, with Valiant acting as the only group to truly accomplish the endeavor (twice, technically). What makes Cult Classic unique is that it won't be a shared superhero universe, but will instead feature 80s horror as its guiding genre. But this is what we'd expect from Vault. They aren't doing things the standard way, and I would attribute their 2017 success to that very philosophy, 

10. Jeff Lemire Is the Most Prolific Creator of our Generation

I thought long and hard about this entry. Then I decided I didn't need to think that much about it. Here's a list of things Jeff Lemire did in 2017

Royal City #1
Concluded runs on Old Man Logan, Thanos and Moon Knight for Marvel,
Concluded the single issue run and published the collection edition of the genre bending and form re-defining masterpiece, A.D.: After Death with Scott Snyder,
Published 9 issues of the utterly beautiful space opera, Descender with Dustin Nguyen, including some cover art for the "Rise of the Robots" event, 
Wrote and illustrated (can I say "cartooned?") 8 issues of the beautifully rendered Royal City 
Cartooned (no, it sounds funny) the original graphic novel, Roughneck
Continued the critically acclaimed Dark Horse series, Black Hammer, and its spin off, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil
Began writing the new Bloodshot: Salvation series for Valiant.

In this year, Jeff Lemire worked as a writer, artist, and cartoonist on properties that range from mainstream superhero to memoir. He is the bridge between comix and comics, and I'm not sure that we deserve him.

Cover by Gilbert Hernandez
All Time Comics: Bullwhip # 1 

11-13. Fantagraphics Published the Most Important Books of the Year

Fantagraphics again reminded us why it is an absolutely vital publisher. Mentioned above, the company continues its beautiful work on Disney archives, and it is also responsible for My Favorite Thing is Monsters. Nontheless, I feel that Fantagraphics's output warrants additional kudos. Below are three more wonderful publications brought to use by the wonderful people at Fantagraphics.

Zonzo by Joan Cornellà - The absurdist cartoons of Spanish artist Joan Cornellà might make so much sense that their ludicrous styling is necessary to dull the edge enough to allow for human consumption. If you aren't able to pick up this collection, Cornellà is also a great follow on Twitter.

All Time Comics by Ben Marra and Josh Bayer, et. al. - Created in the style of an obscenely gritty 1980s Marvel comic, the All Time Comics imprint(?) functions as both homage and parody. The stories are over the top offerings that confront the reader head on, and Marra's art is beautifully over-inked. These books have represented all that is great about and all that detracts from superhero comic books (and the companies that publish them).

The Return of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Romano Scarpa -  IDW has had a recent monopoly on debuting the stars of Disney Italia for American audiences. I'll never pretend to understand how Disney licensing works (Marvel and IDW both publish Star Wars books?), but I hope that Fantagraphics gets to continue distributing much of this material*. Fantagraphics offered us a number of good Euro comics editions, including the equally worthy Ten Thousand Years in Hell Gil Jordan offering. Scarpa's collection, though, is a special version. Not only does it represent an early foray into an "extended universe," it also represents the first time the continued versions of an American cinematic icon have made their way to the United States. 

*No disrespect to IDW. The company has produced excellent Disney offerings in both their revival of classic serials including Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney Comics, as well as archival editions through their Library of American Comic imprint.  

There's certainly more to 2017 that I'd love to discuss (Mage: The Hero Denied, Corey Mohler's Existential Comics Twitter, Katie Skelly's {out of print!} My Pretty Vampire, everything Tim Seely is doing, Garcia and Rubin's magnificent Beowulf, and the insane nostalgia and fulfillment I get from Dark Nights: Metal) but I already managed to significantly alter the rules for a top. I'll end it here, and I'll wish you all a wonderful and joyous 2018.