Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A Year in Review, Part Two – Best Comics and Novels of 2013

Since I did quite a bit of explanation in the first part of this three part end of year review, I’ll just get right on with the list. Keep in mind that when I say best I mean the best that I’ve read or the stuff I’ve enjoyed the most and, of course, the list is limited to what I read and not everything that was released in 2013. I like robot but I’m not a robot. It’s impossible to read everything! Let’s move on!

Best Science Fiction Novels
A Princess of Mars
Other blogs on the internet regularly influence what I read and watch. I usually allow myself to be convinced to read something I wouldn’t necessarily read without the input of outside sources. For several months in 2013, I faithfully read Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode’s Advanced Readings in Dungeons and Dragons series on In short, Callahan and Knode read all of the books that D&D creator Gary Gygax listed as having influences him when he created the now famous table-top game. I’m not at all familiar with D&D nor have I ever played but the numerous reviews of old science fiction and fantasy novels were a delight to read. They’ve convinced me to seek out the works of a few of these writers and the one that caught my attention more than most was Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars was awesome. People overuse words like awesome and epic but that’s exactly what this book was. There are so many fascinating ideas mix into the plot with very interesting characters, that alone would make it a good book. Burroughs goes beyond that by seamlessly combining science fiction and fantasy tropes (some of which he created) into an explosively good first entry in the Barsoom series that also satisfies as a standalone book. My only disappointment with Burroughs’s John Carter stories is that I haven’t had a chance to read the second book in the series. One last comment I’d like to make is that the Barsoom series has inspired a huge selection of excellent art and someone I purchased the book with the worst A Princes of Mars cover ever.

Runner up: Star Trek novels
The large majority of science fiction novels I read in 2013 were Star Trek novels. It’s important to point that out because I qualified most of those novels as being 3 out of 5 stars books but when I look back on them all, two clearly stand out. The first is from TOS, Star Trek: Planet of Judgement by Joe Haldeman. He managed to write a Star Trek story that actually had a sense of impending doom. He also managed to write a Star Trek story for adults, which means he didn’t shy away from things like abortions. It might not sound impressive by today’s standards, but for a book published in 1977, it must have had some impact on readers. The second book is a TNG story, Star Trek: Q-in-Law by Peter David. Q-in-Law is the funniest Star Trek novel that I’ve read so far. David takes advantage of two of TNG’s favourite recurring characters, Q and Lwaxana Troi, and sets up a plot that allows for maximum hilarity. It’s not all fun and games, the crew of the Enterprise have to deal with a difficult diplomatic situation and the combined might of Q and Lwaxana. David also mixes in a fair bit of musings on love just to keep things interesting.

Best Fantasy Novels
The Children of Húrin
The Children of Húrin is a standalone novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and it takes place during the First Age of Tolkien’s Legendarium. It tells the story of Túrin, son of Húrin, and his cursed existence. It’s a short novel by Tolkien’s standard and a shorter version of the story is told in The Silmarillion. The writing is much darker than other works by Tolkien. Thinking about it now while I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings it’s striking how morally grey the characters of The Children of Húrin are. Gone is the contrast between dark and light from The Lord of the Rings. I think it’s better than The Hobbit and serves as a great companion to The Lord of the Rings.

Runner-ups: A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan
I’ve been waiting to read something, anything, by Ursula K. Le Guin for a few years now and I got my chance back in 2012 when I stumbled upon a short story collection of hers. I enjoyed it so much I finally made room in my monthly book order for the first novel in the Earthsea series. It was marvellous. A Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I reviewed in my Blog Fantastic project and it was a great motivational factor in continuing with that project. I now have a new author and a new series that I can add to my list of what I consider great fantasy literature. The surprises of Earthsea didn’t end with the first novel. With the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin manages to retell the same story thematically as the first book but in a completely new way and using a radically different approach to the story and plot. The focus of Earthsea so far is the characters but the world which Le Guin creates is rich if not in history, then in texture. You can smell the salty air and feel the sun on your face. I am only missing one book from the rest of the series and as soon as I have it in my possession, I will continue to explore the wondrous archipelago of Earthsea.

Best non-Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels:
The Outfit by Richard Stark
I’ve read my fair share of Parker novels this year. I discovered the writing a Richard Stark through Darwyn Cooke’s comic book adaptations of Parker stories. Out of all of them, The Outfit is my favourite. Parker is incredibly tough as he undertakes a one man war against the entire Outfit of organized crime in the US. Stark’s no nonsense writing and quick pacing make for quick reads but the story has enough depth to satisfy. I’ve taken a break because I need to order myself more of the novels. With Darwyn Cooke’s latest adaptation recently released and over a dozen more novels by Stark I haven’t yet read, 2014 will also be another year of Parker stories for me.

Runner-up: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
With his second novel, Warren Ellis writes the kind of story he does best, police procedural. His idea of police procedurals tend to differ from the general public’s idea of such stories. Ellis has always shown an interest in his writer to contrast the best and worst that humanity has to offer. Perhaps it’s because of this contrast that he enjoys police procedurals. In Gun Machine, a NYPD detective follows a string of unsolved homicides and discovers them to be all connected. Such a summary doesn’t do the book justice as Ellis manages to incorporate dozens of very interesting ideas ranging from cutting edge science to history of New York City into a vast crime conspiracy. I found the chain of events to be too conincidental to my liking, but when a story is populated with such fascinating characters such as John Tallow, Bat and Scarly. I wouldn’t mind if Ellis was writing another novel featuring Tallow.

Runner-up: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Master and Commander was one of the more challenging reads I took on in the last year. The naval terminology alone proved difficult to learn and remember. Once I was able to overcome that, I was able to better appreciate the story. The adventure of Captain Aubrey’s first command of a ship and his skills at capturing prizes were highly entertaining and extremely accurate to the historical period depicted in the novel. I have Post Captain sitting on my bookshelves and I fear I’ve waited too long to read it. I’ve probably forgot most of the naval terminology O’Brian taught me in Master and Commander.

Best Collection of Comics originally published before 2013
Concrete volume 1: Depths
Paul Chadwick’s Concrete is the superhero comic that decided it didn’t want to be a superhero comic. I say this because Concrete’s origin is straight-up superhero. He’s abducted by aliens and his brain is transferred into a seven foot tall body of concrete. It’s entirely fantastic on the surface but Chadwick presents it with utter realism. The rest of the comic is also just that, realist. I wouldn’t say Concrete is a revisionist comic because it doesn’t deal with superhero tropes more than it has to. It takes a different approach in which on a revisionist superhero element is dropped at the center of what is otherwise a difficult to categorize comic. The art is spectacular. It’s crisp, like the story it’s realist in its approach and Chadwick’s contrasting of black and white is used masterfully.

Runner-up: Thor: The Mighty Avenger
Thor: The Mighty Avenger written by Roger Langridge and drawn by Christ Samnee began its original publication in the summer of 2010. Since then there have been quite a few positive reviews written about it and rightfully so. It’s refreshing that a comic featuring Thor, one of Marvel’s most popular superhero characters, could be so unconcerned about continuity. Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a retelling of Thor’s origin story with a focus on character. Jane Foster, a love interest for Thor, is an interesting character in her own right and her budding relationship with Thor is far more naturally occurring than it’s ever been portrayed before. This is the biggest “what if…” comic I’ve read in quite some time. I consider it a “what if…” story, because Langridge and Samnee weren’t given the opportunity to finish their run. It was cut short due to low sales and it’s a damn shame. It didn’t just feel different and fresh, it was different and fresh and an absolute joy to read.

Best Collection of Comics originally published in 2012/2013
Mouse Guard: The Black Axe
David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comic is a series of huge fantasy adventures starring tiny mice. I do not want to say too much about Mouse Guard: The Black Axe because I’ll be releasing a full review in a couple weeks, I have to say it wasn’t a very difficult decision to place this one at the top of the list for Best Collection of Comics. Petersen manages to write a prequel that also serves as a sequel. It advances the story and gives the reader further insight of elements of the series which were presenting in earlier volumes. Somehow, Petersen’s art continues to improve. It’s just not fair. How can he possible draw mice with such gravitas? He continues to test my patience by releasing new Mouse Guard stories at a slow pace but he doesn’t disappoint because each new story is a worthy addition to the saga.

Runner-up: Prophet volume 2: Brothers
Brandon Graham and a team of artist have been telling what is possible the best science fiction comic story available is possibly today. What makes it even more surprising is that you can tell Graham is still putting the pieces in place for the big finish that is yet to come. Prophet is told through a much greater use of visual storytelling than most comics today. You have to pay attention to the details of the worlds that are being explored. There is a sense that the comic is going somewhere but it’s not obvious where that final destination will be. One thing is for certain, Graham and his colleagues are making sure the ride there is as fascinating and weird as possible.

Runner-up: Crater XV
There are two things that made Crater XV a good comic. The first is the energetic and improvisational tone of the story, the art and the humour. The second is the depth of character writer/artist Kevin Cannon manages to sneak in amidst the chaotic activity of the rest of the story. Crater XV feels and reads like a comic that was written by trying to mix together as many different story ideas, genres and fun characters together and hoping for the best but it’s more than that. There is an underlying structure to the whole thing that clearly demonstrates Cannon knows what he’s doing it. How he can juggle the feeling of spontaneity with a well-crafted story is beyond me, but it’s a great comic that can be enjoyed in so many different ways.

Best Original Graphic Novels (OGN):
Nemo: Heart of Ice
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is Alan Moore’s best series from the later part of his career. The same can be said of Kevin O’Neil’s career. With Nemo: Heart of Ice, Moore and O’Neil shift the focus of their series from Mina Murray and her team literature heroes to Janni Dakkar, the daughter of Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Moore uses stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Vernes and H. P. Lovecraft as the basis for Heart of Ice in which he tells a story of Janni trying to step out of under her father’s shadow and create her own identity as Captain Nemo. It was a more personal story set in the world of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the execution, both the writer and the art, where spectacular. Top Shelf’s announcement of two more Janni graphic novels is great new, especially since one will be published in 2014.

Runner-up: Battling Boy
Any year in which a new comic by Paul Pope is released is a good year. I wasn’t the only one who had high expectations for Pope’s new comic but we needed had worried because Battling Boy delivers. It’s an excellent pseudo-superhero/modern myth story about a boy and his journey to manhood. Pope masterfully combines the allure of fun and action with the lasting depths of a more serious work. The best thing about Battling Boy: there will be more. Pope is hard at work on the second half of the story and once again, comic lovers are eagerly awaiting its release.

Runner-up: Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills
I picked up the first Johnny Hiro comic more or less on a whim. I had read something about in on Comics Should Be Good a few years ago and it sparked something in my head when I saw it in the store. I recalled something about a guy running around on rooftops in his bunny slippers, chasing after a Godzilla rip-off that kidnapped his girlfriend. It sounded goofy but enjoyable and Johnny Hiro sure is that, but it’s also something more. I didn’t expect to see a second volume so soon after having read the first volume but Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hiro has already had two separate publications. To my delight Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills surpasses the first volume in both character development and story though, sadly, not in humour. Fred Chao’s wonderful series breathes fresh air to the comics world. It’s original despite borrowing certain elements from pop culture. Chao crafts a story that is personal but relatable and the result is a comic that truly feels important, particularly to young adults in their twenties.

Best Manga:                       
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
I’m a very big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies so when I found out that VIZ Media was releasing a two volume hardcover box set of the entire Nausicaa manga, I had to get it. I’ve always known that the movie of the same name only told part of the story. I have no idea that it only told about 150 to 200 pages of the 1000+ magnum opus that is the manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The scope of the story is huge. The history, the number of characters, the multitude of plot threads running through the book and the world building are all more impressive that the other. I took my team reading it because there were so many stories to immerse myself into and I wanted to savour it. A few months ago I wanted to write a review of it but I don’t think a conventional review would be good enough. I plan on writing about Nausicaa in the future, I’m just not entirely sure when. One thing is for certain, I’ll be reading this manga ago several times because there is just so much being offered on every page, I can’t picture this story ever getting old. The only downside of having read the manga is that the movie seems underwhelming. It’s very well executed but in comparison to the story being told in the manga, it doesn’t feel impressive anymore.

Runner-up: Dr. Slump volumes 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16
I love Dr. Slump and I’ve read 11 volumes of it this past year. For those of you at home who have no clue of the gut-bustin’ world contained in each and every page of Akira Toriyama’s first manga series, that’s 11 volumes of roaring laughter, tear jerking jokes and insanity. In an attempt to put Dr. Slump into perspective, it’s the funniest manga or comic I’ve ever read. Toriyama is nothing less but a genius. The humour takes on many different shapes, from run-on gags about poop on sticks, to little girl robots who need to wear glasses, from jokes taken from Japanese culture, laughing at perverted men, situational comedy, meta-fictional comedy, breaking the fourth wall, everything is used and despite the numerous mentions of having story ideas rejected by his editor, it’s hard to believe that ever really happened because I can’t think of a Dr. Slump story I haven’t enjoyed. For those of your who are only familiar with Toriyama’s action series, Dragon Ball, the funniest moments in Dragon Ball don’t measure up to the jokes found on nearly every page of Dr. Slump. Do yourself a favour; pick up a volume of Dr. Slump, any volume. It’s one of the best ways to spend ten dollars. 

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