Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Year in Review, Part Three – Best Comics and Novels of 2014

Best Science Fiction Books
Prophet is an impressive comic. Its basic composition is clear for all to see yet it combines words in pictures in ways that only the best comics can do. The result is not only one of the best comics but also one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read or watched this year. The third collected volume dealt with the combination of the story’s two main storylines which also happened to be the two opposing sides of a large conflict between various species and factions. Prophet is an excellent comic not just because of its interesting story. What really makes this comic worthwhile is the storytelling. Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milonogiannis know how to craft an exciting and visually fresh narrative. The continuation of this story was published in monthly single issues but I have yet to see solicitations for the fourth trade paperback volume. I really hope that I get to read the further adventures of all the John Prophets as this comic book revival series has been a pleasant and engaging surprise since the start.

I haven’t read many science fiction novels this year. I’m not sure why because I seem to continuously have an itch to read or watch science fiction but I often get distracted by something else. That makes me sound like a bit of a liar or as someone who’s exaggerating how much he’s been thinking of reading science fiction but regular readers of SUR will have notices how scattered I am when it comes to reading. There are just so many interesting books to read that I can barely keep focused on finishing what I’ve already started. You’d think that writing here would help with that but not nearly as much as I would like.

Out of all the science fiction novels I did read the novelization of The Wrath of Khan by Vonda N. McIntyre was one of the most enjoyable ones to read. Like all fans of Star Trek this is a movie I’ve watched many times and I know it well. Somehow, McIntyre managed to make me see things I simply never noticed before. The Wrath of Khan is one of the best examples of science fiction storytelling that focuses on character and not on technology. While there have been plenty of movies and episodes that quote Shakespeare this is the story that comes closest to showing the same kind of gravitas and tragedy of the Bard’s work. I didn’t know that novelizations could be so good. Next year I’ll have to read some of the other novelizations McIntyre wrote for Star Trek along with her tie-in novels as well.   

Best Fantasy Novels
Jhereg is a marvelous book.” That’s how I started my review and really, I could have ended it there too. Written by Steven Brust, this is the first novel in the Vlad Taltos series and it became my favourite fantasy discovery of the year. Brust created a very rich and detailed world that avoids falling in the vein of Tolkien-inspired fantasy settings. It’s a unique blend of noir sensibilities with a fantasy setting that also happens to deal with at least two distinct systems of magic. What impressed me the most about Jhereg is that Brust structured it in a similar fashion as you would structure a heist story and that allowed him to explain his fictional world progressively throughout the novel. He mixed plot, characterization and world building in ways I don’t recall ever experiencing before. Writing all of this now I can’t believe I haven’t dived into the second book yet. Especially because it’s staring down at me from the bookshelf. I guess I’ll have to crack it open in the new year.

Runner-up: The Farthest Shore:
Ursula K. Le Guin is a powerhouse. I haven’t read anything by her that didn’t haunt me afterword. Her characters and her themes are so potent that they reach deep down within me and touch me on an emotional and intellectual level. She’s a master of the craft. Reading the third book in her Earthsea series, The Farthest Shore, proved this to me once again. In this book she uses the simple story of Sparrowhawk’s journey to discover the cause behind the disappearance of magic to write about life, death, and the abuse of power. Her prose is taunt and evocative and she strikes a balance between elegant descriptions and the brevity of carefully selected words to bring her narrative to life. The first Earthsea book was a tale of young Ged (before he truly became Sparrowhawk). The second book gave us an outsider’s point of view on the Archmage. The third book gives us an old Sparrowhawk, one who is contemplative as often as he is in action. Le Guin also writes about dragons like it’s nobody’s business and I loved every page of it.

Best Comic Books
Last year’s list split comics based on when the collected edition of title was originally published. I’m giving up on that this year because I really don’t follow new comics much and I also don’t care when specific things have been published. I realize that by not keeping with up regular comics this end of the year list loses some of its relevancy but I pulled away from buying monthly singles issues because I was tired of keeping up. Reading comics was starting to feel like a rat race and I was buying books I didn’t particularly enjoy simply because it was becoming important for my pull list to stay relevant. When something you like to do starts to feel like something you have to do it’s time to pull back and that’s what I did.

Here then, is my list of the best comics I read in 2014, regardless of when they were originally published or collected.

Gilbert “Beto” Hernandez has had a long and fruitful career in comics but he continues to work as if he’s just released his first acclaimed comic. By this I mean that he continues to release comic after comic each year. This year alone he had two new comics published (Bumperhead and Loverboys) and had at least two collections of previously published material (Fatima: The Blood Spinner and Luba and her Family). Two of my favourite comics this year were by Beto: Maria M. and Bumperhead. Maria M. is a solid comic without being spectacular. I think that might have to do with the fact that it’s as of yet incompletely. Only the first half has been released so far with the second half scheduled for release in 2015. It has a fascinating metatextual and real-world origin but it’s a little complex for the purposes of this recap. It’s best to just follow the link to my original review.

The better of the two works though has to be Bumperhead. Somewhat of a sequel to last year’s Marble Season, this comic focuses on the life of Bobby form his childhood to his adulthood. The main focus of  the book is his teenage years in which he gets pulled into the punk movement. Beto has a skill in writing character’s entire lives and adding meaning along with depth of character and depth of story with well thought out snippets of everyday life.  With roughly 130 pages, Beto builds a compelling and believable life of an individual. It’s all there laid out on the page in stark black and white. Some people find this kind of comic odd, difficult to read or lacking substance but it’s important to realize that the narrative isn’t plot driven. It is character driven to the point of being solely about that one character. By opening the cover of Bumperhead Beto is asking you, not to dive into a story, but to immerse yourself in the life of another individual. His superb storytelling makes it work, and that’s what brings it all to life. Truly, Gilbert Hernandez is a comcis creator to follow.

People who read SUR with any regularity have probably noticed my affection for Peter David. This is particularly true of his Star Trek books. I also thing the guy understands sequential storytelling, especially in the superhero genre, better than most. It’s the kind of thing that is often missed because David isn’t a flashy writer. He’s no one of the biggest names in comics but he should be. His work is mature, thoughtful, often hilarious, and works particularly well as long-form storytelling without relying on decompression to increase page count or stretch storylines for multiple issues. The easiest identifying that understands the comic book format is that he explores the consequences of previous stories on later stories. Yes, he uses storylines like all other comic book writers but he also integrates them into a much larger narrative. The narrative of the entire series. I’m not sure if he always has an end game in mind but it’s clear he has something mapped out because his comics feel like they’re heading towards an end.

X-Factor is one of the best X-men and superhero comics to come around in a long time. I realise these issues are starting to look old. They date around the time I began getting into comics (somewhere around House of M) but they’re still good. More importantly to me, they’re better that the X-men comics today. Marvel has been collecting his run on X-Factor (which is still going strong) in very thick trade paperbacks. Two volumes have been released so far but I haven’t seen any solicitation for future volumes. Much like Prophet, I’m left hanging. I really wish Marvel would get their act together because a lengthy run like this one (just a few more than 100 issues before the latest reboot) is worthy of being entirely collected in this format. I want more!

Best Original Graphic Novels (OGN):
I was not alone in the comics reader community to be anxiously awaiting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new comic following the conclusion of Scott Pilgrim. My initial reaction was one of pleasant surprise as the book was heftier than I thought it would be. It was a fantastic read though. O’Malley’s art became a bit more abstract, more cartoony than it became in the final volumes of Scott Pilgrim. The storytelling also matured as he’s working with interesting themes. Seconds is an entertaining and funny moral tale that follows a structure similar to Groundhog Day. It was a highly anticipated graphic novel but O’Malley cements his reputation as one of the most original and talented writer/artist in comics. I don’t know if he’s announced his next project but I’m certainly interested to know what it will be. More comics by O’Malley, please!

In the last few years Alan Moore has fallen into disfavour in the comics industry for comments he’s made in interviews. For all intents and purposes it feels as though he’s developed a very negative opinion of the comic book community at large, both creators and readers. From what he’s mentioned in interviews it seems as though as lot of his feelings towards the industry has to do with the way publishers treat their creators. This makes sense considering how Moore has been slighted. Despite all these feelings, Moore clearly loves the medium as he’s had new comics hit the stands at regular intervals in the last few years. The more recent of which is Nemo: The Roses of Berlin, second in his Nemo trilogy which is part of the ongoing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Moore might hold a grudge against the likes of DC and other publishers but he’s still writing mighty fine comics that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. It’s definitively an intelligent book and it’s filled with literary allusions and Easter eggs. There are fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that absolutely delight in these minute and detailed references. While I enjoy those that I notice, it’s not my only reason for liking this comic. I like it because it actually has an emotional core. The Nemo comics, this one and the first, have had a tighter focus than the last two League books (Black Dossier and Century). Jaani has easily become one of the most interesting characters in the series and watching her story unfold has been a delight. Like many of the best books that I read this year, it is part of a series. There is one book left to be release and I’m really looking forward to it.

Best Bande Dessinée:
This year I read more bandes dessinées than I have read in the last few years. Most of them were borrowed from my dad’s collection and those I enjoyed revisiting the most were some of the Yoko Tsuno albums by Roger Leloup. I haven’t talk a lot about art in this post yet because I tend to focus on the story. While I include the art when I talk about storytelling I don’t single it out often. When it comes to Yoko Tsuno what attracts me the most to the series is Leloup’s distinctly European style of ligne claire. Even his uninteresting Yoko Tsuno albums are lavishly illustrated. The storytelling is clear, the pages are detailed and the colours are vibrant (while serving the story). La spirale du temps is the best of the volumes I revisited this year. It’s too bad that the rest of the BDs I read this year simply weren’t as good as I remembered them being.

Best Manga:                       
Yotsuba&! volumes 3 and 4:
There are certain books and comics that simply make you feel good when you read them. Yotsuba&! is one of those books. It’s impossible not to have your spirits lifted by the antics of young Yotsuba as she explores the world around her and teaches other to enjoy everything in life. I don’t have kids of my own but those that do have said that the way Yotsuba acts is true to life. If this is true parenthood must be quite the adventure. With his series, mangaka Kiyohiko Azuma has captured the joy of life on the page and by reading his mange we all get to spend some time enjoying simple, everyday pleasures and be inspired to pass it along to others. It’s a beautiful and positive manga series that skilfully avoids being overly sweet or sentimental.

Runner-up: Naruto volumes 16 to 24:
I’m a fan of Viz Media’s 3-in-1 editions. Sure, they’re not perfect. The paper quality is less than ideal but it’s hard to argue with the price which is essentially have the price of the original individual volumes. They also take less room on the shelf, about two and a half the width of three individual volumes. It’s a good deal and you get plenty of story in each 3-in-1 volume. It’s the best way to read really long manga, especially shonen titles. This year I reread several volumes of Naruto; specifically volumes 16 to 24 collected in 3-in-1 volumes 6 to 8. That might sound confusing but it’s really simple since there are only two editions in print: single volumes and 3-in-1 volumes.

The story in those volumes collected the very last chapters in the Konoha Crush story arc and the entirety of the Search for Tsunade arc and begins in about half of the Sasuke Recovery Mission arc. It’s a big chunk of manga and the reader flips through the pages as quickly as the shinobi run through the branches of the forests of Konoha. Everything is face pasts and very kinetic. The artwork remains top notch even after 150 chapters. The storytelling is engaging and the series reaches and invigorating tone in these volumes with the exploration of the history of the universe that Masashi Kishimoto has created. It’s got a huge cast of characters interacting and growing together. It’s one of my favourite manga because of the amount of energy contained within its pages. Yotsuba&! is charming and makes me feel good about life while Naruto excites and thrills me. Just like the 3-in-1 editions this manga isn’t perfect but it’s tons of fun, mixed together with action and a very cool aesthetic. Unlike the bandes dessinées I reread this year Naruto still holds up and I look forward to the day that the 3-in-1 reprints catch up to the chapters where I originally left the series.

Special Mention: The Ice Schooner:
The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock is definitively not one of the best books I read last year. It’s actually kind of bad but I loved it. It’s ridiculous in so many ways and it is undeniably pulpy in origin as well as in execution but it’s far from a terrible book. It’s actually very good in its own way. I’m not entirely sure what it is about this book but it screams to me in equal parts awesome and ridiculous. Ever since I saw the painted cover  by Boris Vallejo at my local used book store (Bay Used Books) I knew I had to buy it and I had a feeling I would love it. I did.

I’m sucker for stories that take place in cold, winter environments and this was one of the better ones. I’m also of the opinion that it’s impossible not to love the idea of sailboats on skies hunting ice whales on a frozen planet. It’s short, it’s a little punchy, and it’s a fascinating look at a world that could be. Of the few books I’ve read by Michael Moorcock (stories of Elric and this one) it’s my favourite. It’s not structurally fancy or particularly daring or skilful but it presents a dangerous and fascinating world that sneaked into my head and didn’t entirely leave my thoughts for weeks. There were so many neat ideas and sharp edges to this story that it left a clear impression on me. It’ll surely be a book I revisit from time to time. 

No comments:

Post a Comment