And rather belatedly after our guest Best of the Year posts and Richard’s selection (see here), finally it’s time for me to pick out some of my favourites from 2015…
Alpha, Jens Harder (Knockabout). Harder shows a breathtaking scope here in the first of a projected three large books. This first volume takes us from the very birth of the universe, the Big Bang, the creation of the physical laws that would take us from nothingness to the slow coalescing of atoms into dust into more solid matter and, across billions of years into worlds. We witness the moment a young star achieves ignition, its nuclear fires radiating out light and life, worlds forming, rocks, skies, water, and then here a volcanic hell slowly evolving into our glorious Earth, whizzing us through from bacteria to the first animal lifeforms, the great dinosaurs and up to the edge of the human period. Science, philosophy, history and art all combine here into a blistering headtrip, intercutting the evolution of everything with images from human cultures. It’s up there with the Stargate sequence in 2001 as a head-opening, mind-blowing piece of work. If forced to pick a single favourite from this list, it would be Alpha. (my full review is here)
Filmish, Edward Ross (SelfMadeHero) Regular readers will know I’ve followed my fellow Edinburgh citizen Edward Ross’s self published mini-comics on film theory for some years, and I was delighted that this year SelfMadeHero were publishing his years-in-progress work. This is a delightful – and loving – look at one visual medium, cinema, through the use of another, comics, two media which grew up side by side through the 20th century and which have influenced each other since the earliest days right to today. It’s well-researched (coming with comprehensive bibliography and filmography), a wonderful use of comics and an utter pleasure for cinephiles. Superb. (reviewed here)
Omaha Beach on D-Day, Jean-David Morvan, Severine Trefouel (First Second) Two of my passions are brought together here, history and photography. This striking, landscape-format book follows the horrendous action of the first wave on “Bloody Omaha”, through the lens of the legendary Robert Capa, a found father of photojournalism, and the only journalist to record one of the most important moments of WWII on film, events which shaped our world, all recorded at great risk of life. Remarkable. (review here)
Everything is Teeth, Evie Wyld, Joe Sumner (Jonathan Cape). I was very happy to be asked to chair an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival last summer Evie and Joe – this is their first full comic work, but Evie is not only a highly acclaimed novelist, she’s on the highly prestigious Granta list of best young novelists (a list that has included Iain Banks and so many other great writers at the early stages of their career). The story, a look back at her own childhood and her fascination/fear with sharks stoked by family visits to relatives in Australia seems at first like a family memoir, but, as with her novels there are darker themes here and layers – this is a book which deserves re-readings, revealing far more levels and interpretations, while serving up some art which is highly evocative of place and time. (reviewed here)
The Red Shoes and Other Stories, Metaphrog (NBM/Papercutz) Although this launched in autumn the publisher did a special edition early just for the Edinburgh Book Festival, where Metaphrog were artists in residence – and they totally sold out. When the audience of the biggest lit fest on the planet buy every copy of your book, that’s a pretty strong recommendation! This is a glorious reworking of some classic fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and a modern fairy tale by Metaphrog themselves. It is achingly beautiful work for young readers but also for adults (or better still, adults read it with your children or nephews and nieces), capturing the magic but also the darkness of the fairy tale and the bittersweet, happy-sad nature of the stories. Absolutely gorgeous work. (reviewed here)
Ody-C, Matt Fraction, Christian Ward (Image). Since I was a schoolboy I have been in love with the Greek Classics and had devoured the Iliad and Odyssey before we got to them in Classical Studies (where I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged ever more reading). Keystones of world literature, Homer’s great works have fascinated later artists in many media – and here Fraction and Ward take that story and give it a science fiction and gender-swap twist. Here instead of the old fox Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia”, space-faring Swiftships crewed by warrior women returning through space from the long siege of Troiia but finding themselves at the whims of jealous, pernicious goddesses. It’s a clever take on one of the great stories of world literature, and Fraction’s artwork and amazing colouring are simply fabulous pieces of comics art. (volume 1 reviewed here)
The Fade Out, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips (Image). Frankly I would pick up any book by Brubaker and Phillips, they are a team you simply can’t go wrong with. But much as I loved Fatale and Criminal, with the Fade Out they took that Noir tinged storytelling and atmosphere and mixed with with the last days of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system, a moral quagmire where nobody is truly clean or noble, everyone has a secret hidden behind the tinsel-wrapped facade of big-screen glamour, much of the details and characters lifted from real life Hollywood history of the 30s and 40s (a bonus for we film lovers). Intoxicating. (volume 1 reviewed here)
Judas: the Last Days, W Maxwell Prince, John Amor (IDW). I had never read anything by Prince or Amor before this, but sometimes my bookselling Spidey-sense just tingles and I know that I’m going to have to read that book. And I’m glad to report that literary Spidey-sense still works and steers me to interesting new works – this proved to be a fascinating look not just into the legend of Judas (here cursed to live on forever but wanting to repent, to die) but of the nature of faith, belief and how the Word isn’t some static commandment writ on stone never to be changed, but a philosophical tool to be considered as a way of altering one’s perceptions. It’s also quite fun in places along the way too! (reviewed here)
March Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (Top Shelf). The second volume of graphic memoir drawing on the experiences of veteran US politician John Lewis, who as a very young lad became a passionate leader in the youth wing of the Civil Rights movement in the US. I found the first volume to be incredibly powerful, moving, upsetting and inspiring, and this next chapter is equally remarkable, doing what a good history should, making it a living history, not static words recording dates. History isn’t really history, it doesn’t end, it becomes the present, everything around us, our societies, arts, religions, philosophies and politics all shaped by that living history, ancient and modern. And here it is modern history, still in living memory for some, and includes that magnificent moment in Washington when great speakers, including Dr Martin Luther King himself, spoke so eloquently of liberty. Of the speakers that day only Lewis remains, and here he uses the comics medium to make sure he passes on that important story. Not just an engrossing read, this is an important read. (review here)
Tim Ginger, Julian Hanshaw (Top Shelf). I’ve followed Julian’s work since he won the Cape/Observer/Comica short story prize several years ago, and with him making his US publisher debut I knew I had to read Tim Ginger. Rather than paraphrase my earlier thoughts I’ll simply quote a little from my original review, “Tim Ginger is a beautifully crafted, very gently, quietly told, emotional story about love, about getting older, the decisions we made and where they lead us, the good moments that leave an eternal warm glow in our souls, the lost moments and people who can haunt us as surely as any supernatural spectre.”
Step Aside, Pops! A Hark! A Vagrant Collection, Kate Beaton (Jonathan Cape). One of Canada’s gifts to the reading world, I adore Kate’s Hark! A Vagrant strips, which take in her own marvelous spin on historical figures such as Napoleon, artists like Chopin, Liszt and Byron, outrageous feminists hiding under children’s beds and – almost her trademark now – her wonderful riffs on some of the great classics of literature (her Heathcliff has me in stitches). You know you are onto a good read when just the cover image alone has you in knots of laughter (and I still want that art on a T-shirt!). (reviewed here)
Arcadia, Alex Paknadel, Eric Scott Pfeiffer (Boom Studios). Absolutely loving this series, a great slice of cyberpunk science fiction. It’s notoriously hard to do cyberpunk well now that we’re pretty much living in that future of the wired, digital, corporate-run world Gibson et al envisions way back in the old 20th century, but Alex and Eric have delivered a compelling tale with inventive SF (most of the world population dead of a virus, billions now in a virtual life downloaded into Arcadia, a virtual world), thriller and politics (“the meat”, the remaining real world inhabitants have to maintain the vast servers Arcadia needs to run, Arcadians in turn meant to be using their processing power to work on a cure for survivors, tensions rising between each even before further complications and revelations). Taught and tense – modern cyberpunk mixed with the ever popular end-of-civilisation and taking in problems of today (notably the ever increasing disparity between super rich and everyone else). (issue #1 reviewed here)
Dungeon Fun, Colin Bell, Neil Slorance (Dogooder Comics) The final fourth part and then a lovely trade edition collecting the entire series, which is, quite simply, a pure and utter delight from start to finish, suitable for all-ages, with a strong young girl as lead too. Brilliantly smile-inducing, clever gags with perfect timing, script and art perfectly partnered, this is simply one of the funnest reads in recent comics for kids and adults. As well as the fourth and final part the guys also did a collected edition in 2015, which I had to treat myself to, and which I highly recommend.
Shout outs also go to Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B’s Best of Enemies Part One, which wasn’t actually from this year, but I first read it after hearing Jean-Pierre talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival in the summer and found both talk and book fascinating. Similarly it was only this year I got to catch up with Rob Davis’ superb The Motherless Oven as I prepared to talk with him at the book fest, allowing me to catch up on a book that many raved about this time last year but I somehow still hadn’t read till then (book festivals, another good source of reading inspiration!). Mike’s Place by Jack Baxter and Koren Shadmi was a powerful and emotional real-life tale of our wretched age of Terror and how we try to cope. Lemire and Nguyen’s Descender has been a top helping of terrific science fiction. Antonio Altaribba and Kim’s The Art of Flying is an incredibly powerful tale of family life and recent Spanish history, from the Civil War to today, rightly held up in Spain as one of their masterpieces of the medium.
(an early scene from Antonio Altaribba and Kim’s powerful and moving Spanish masterpiece Art of Flying, published in English by Cape)
Brian Wood and Andrea Mutti’s Rebels mini-series offered a view of the American Revolutionary War but not from the perspective of great generals, but from the ordinary men and women whose lives became enmeshed in events far larger than them. DC Bombshells by Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage was a huge surprise and utter delight, reworking WWII superheroics from a brilliantly done female perspective and riffing on established DC history,giving us very strong women leads facing danger, but also retaining their femininity and compassion . I loved Andy Hixon’s Lucia, which was unpredictable and brilliantly, distinctively odd (in the good way) in both tale and art.
David Baillie and Meghan Hetrick’s Red Thorn is only a tiny bit into its run (only two issues so far), so I can’t quite add it yet, but it is shaping up to end up on next year’s list, I reckon. And Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist collection was an absolute pleasure (and a good way to introduce yourself to his work – think the Israeli Joe Decie). Abraham Kawa, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna’s Democracy was a moving exploration of the Classical roots of Western democracy and the freedoms which are, for most of us, integral to our very sense of being, with sadly pertinent qualities to our own troubled present. Mike Carey, Mike Perkins and Andy Troy’s Rowan’s Ruin is still early in its run so doesn’t quite make the list (but like Red Thorn I suspect it will figure next year), but already shaping up to be a lovely tale of disturbing old horror in the English countryside. And I know I am probably still missing out a pile of folks…
The Word For World Is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz). Okay this was originally published back in 1972, but Gollancz did a nice new edition for the SF Masterworks series in 2015 (along with a number of other very welcome Ursula Le Guin material). A tiny little novel it nevertheless packs a huge punch, managing to be very much of its time (Vietnam, growing ecological worries, the West’s constant use of natural resources as commodities, and damn the consequences) and yet, sadly, still very pertinent to today’s world (exploitation of other cultures, seeing them as inferior at best or just in the way of what we want, at worst, human arrogance in the face of the natural world) and also showcases Le Guin’s endless fascination with anthropology and trying to explore and understand different ways of being. Short but emotional and potent. (reviewed here)
It’s Hard to be a God, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Gollancz). Yes, another much older book but again one which got not only a spanking new SF Masterworks version in 2015, it was a new translation (promised to be more accurate than previous versions years ago) and also coming with a splendid introduction by Ken MacLeod. This Russian SF book used the genre to get around the Soviet era censorship cleverly, and at it’s core carries an exploration of the use, responsibilities and consequences of knowledge and action, or lack of action, as a science team are embedded in a primitive, Medieval-like world posing as native to study it, horrified at the backwards ways, lack of morality and corrupted beliefs compared to their own Utopian version of advanced Earth society, but strictly forbidden to use their knowledge or abilities or technology to interfere overtly in the society’s development. And yet, after years of seeing it first hand, the suffering and know they have abilities which would let them change it all, the temptation fights the disciplined urge to adhere to the rules. Preceding Star Trek’s non interference policy by years, this is some of the most fascinating SF, utterly compelling. Most annoyed I missed the film version which had a limited release last year too.
Imaginary Cities, Darran Anderson (Influx Press). I follow Darran on Twitter and was so intrigued by glimpses of his book that I had to treat myself to it when it came out a few months ago; little did I know I was picking up what would be one of my favourite books of the year. Yes, as the title suggests this delves into imaginary conurbations, such as Plato’s Atlantis, or More’s Utopia, or even Dante’s Inferno. But he’s equally happy discussing the Mega City One of Judge Dredd or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Borges. But he also takes in real cities – current and historical – and discusses the way they too are partly imaginary, overlaid with dreams, from the designs of the architects and then how others use and see their buildings, to our own experiences colouring how we perceive our cities. It’s sociology, history, architecture, philosophy and more, with liberal references to historical and literary sources, from Classical poetry to 2000 AD comic. One of those books you have to pause your reading every so often because it is sparking so many ideas in your head, and one of those wonderful reads which makes you want to read many of the books it references.
The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis (Orbit). I was highly impressed with Ian’s previous series, the Milkweed Triptych, a very bleak, dark, inventive alternative history of World War II, and this, the first in a new series, proved even more impressive. An alt-history clockpunk, where a mixture of science and alchemy has created Clakkers, tireless robotic servants which have allowed the commercial empire of the Dutch to become the pre-eminent power, while the remains of the French forces are now reduced to virtual siege in New France (what would have been Canada). The world building detail is superb, mixing historical elements with fantasy, but the real devil here, as with the Milkweed books, is some of the truly horrendous moral decisions taken by some characters, which are haunting and disturbing. (reviewed here)
The Death House, Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz). Sarah is one of that fascinating new breed of writers who create cross-genre work that defies easy labelling, and this, her foray into Young Adult territory, also happily takes in whatever different genres it wants to make itself work (science fiction, romance, horror), and work it does, beautifully and disturbingly. A mysterious disease strikes some in their early years, those who test as “defective” are whisked away without hope of parole to a secretive sanitorium, where groups of kids are kept, almost like an orphanage, except here basically waiting to die. Sarah spends less time on explanation and more on atmosphere and emotion, to great effect. (reviewed here)
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (Picador). Emily scooped the UK’s top science fiction literary prize, the Arthur C Clarke award, and I was already reading it just after the win, when it was chosen for our SF book group. It’s a frighteningly real tale of how quickly our civilisation can crumble in the face of a rapidly spreading pandemic. Told with multiple flashbacks to the world before and then during the collapse, but mostly set in the devastated future following a group of players (musicians and actors) who walk from small surviving township to township performing, trying to save shards of thousands of years of human culture. Littered with lovely touches – memories of seeing the very last airliner they would ever see take off, a small town librarian, now there is no web, no computers, no e-readers, resorting to old methods of print books and mechanically printed newsletters to save knowledge and circulate it.
Steeple, Jon Wallace (Gollancz). I loved the first of Jon Wallace’s Kenstibec novels, Barricade, and it made my previous best of the year, so I was eager to read his sequel. The books are billed as worthy successors to Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, which is a big claim (I am a huge fan of Richard’s work and still have my signed first edition of Altered Carbon). And again in the second book that claim holds up (how about that, PR blurb that is actually true!!). Kenstibec is still in the ruined near-future Britain of desperate, pathetic humans reduced to less than Medieval standards while the Ficials (artificial humanoids) still seek to eliminate them. But after Barricade Kenstibec is no longer a top of the line Ficial with all the strengths and recuperative abilities, he’s now reduced to practically human. Driven on a desperate quest, not really caring if it ends him, his having to cope with human style life instead of sneering down at it provides well judged moments of humour and tragedy, with a similarly fast-paced, hugely enjoyable narrative pace to the first book. Brilliant.
Film & TV
Therapy For a Vampire, directed by David Reuhm. I caught this at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and I think it was not only my favourite flick of the festival but my favourite film of the year. This Austrian film is a sheer delight – our centuries-old count is having a vampiric mid-life crisis, he’s so apathetic he doesn’t even bite his victims anymore but gets his ‘Renfield’ servant to bludgeon them then siphon off the blood. It’s early 1930s Austria and he turns to a new science, psychiatry, and the services of Sigmund Freud to try and deal with his problems, before pepping up at the sight of the emancipated girlfriend of a painter he engages for his wife. A woman who reminds him of his long-lost love. The film is superb, touching lovingly but often cheekily on genre staples, playing with gender ideas, and the look and mis-en-scene is impeccable. Think Brooks’ Young Frankenstein meets Dracula directed by an Austrian version of a young (Delicatessen-era) Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It got a round of applause from the festival audience, always a good sign. Distributors, why aren’t you picking this up for a general release? (review here)
What We Do in the Shadows, directed by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi. Despite coming from the Flight of the Conchords guys I really wasn’t sure this idea of a film about a documentary following a group of house-sharing vampires would work for the length of a film. A sketch, sure, great idea, but a whole film? Delighted to be proved wrong, this turned out to be one of the best films of the year for me, gleefully playing with all the tropes from different eras of vampire fiction and myth, bloody funny (sometimes literally) and with an actual emotional aspect to the sometimes strained friendships. It’s absolute genius – since seeing it in the cinema I’ve had to add it to my home movie collection and enjoyed it even more second time round.
Liza the Fox Fairy, directed by Károly Ujj Mészáros. It’s Hungary in the 1970s, but a light fantasy version (much like Amelie is set in a fantasy version of Paris), where there is no Iron Curtain. Liza has been the nurse to the Japanese ambassador’s wife for years, her only real friend the ghost of a 50s/60s J-Pop crooner. When her employer leaves her the apartment in her will Liza tries to reconnect with the world by dating, but she’s clueless, if well-meaning, and there is the slight problem of the string of bizarre accidents resulting in the deaths of many she comes in contact with. Or are they accidents? Perhaps her ghostly friend doesn’t want her playing with others? Although playing with the supernatural and horror elements, this is mostly a fantasy and comedy, even the deaths are often funny in that grand guignol theatre kind of way, while the film is filled with so many wonderful little details, you can feel how much love and attention was lavished on it, and it pays off. This was another film festival fave for me and again it got a huge round of applause from the festival audience. Come on distributors, this deserves to get a general release, at least on the arthouse cinema circuit. (review here)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Absolutely loved Ana’s low-budget Indy flick, dubbed “the first Iranian Vampire Western”. Shot in silvery black and white which makes the most of the stark locations, following Arash, a young man caring for a drug-addled father an the unnamed vampiric woman who crosses his path at night. It’s beautifully shot, retaining its Persian roots but also clearly influenced by a lot of Western, especially American Indy films, often with that gorgeously-shot, slow, langorous, dream-like feel of a Jim Jarmusch movie.
Song of the Sea, directed Tomm Moore. Another triumph for Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon after the magical (Oscar nominated) The Secret of Kells, and, thank you guys for remaining true to traditional 2D animation in this CG in 3D age. Along with Studio Ghibli they are one of the few to stick with that medium of animation for feature films and oh it is achingly beautiful art and animation. And also like Ghibli in both this and Kells Moore develops a story which is part realism and part fairy tale, drawing on folklore and featuring strong young girls as leads. Wonderful for kids, just as magical for adults willing to let themselves go and dive into it. Really looking forward to Cartoon Saloon’s next work, it is a disgrace they don’t get a higher profile in cinemas here, perhaps that’s down to distribution companies not knowing how to handle an animated feature that isn’t 3D and tied to fast food happy meal deal, and that’s a shame because I think too many people miss the chance to see their films.
Future Shock: the Story of 2000 AD, directed by Paul Goodwin. Of course this is on my Best Of list! Hard to believe it has taken the best part of forty years for this powerhouse icon of Brit comics to get a documentary. Also hard to believe that’s how long 2000 AD has been going (and that I’ve been reading since the first Prog – that makes me feel old!). Another film fest screening for me, although in recent weeks it has been getting a wider releases in cinemas across the UK, and you can order it from their site on disc. It’s a fascinating look into the creation and early days, then the growth, the changes across the decades, the stories, the art and the creators, with a great selection of writers and artists sharing their thoughts and memories. Pat Mills as both founder and still a mainstay writer to this day gets the lion’s share, and his passion and indeed anger at some of the unfair practises of the early owners and publishers comes across strongly, but mostly there’s a sense of pride and achievement at having created something here that is still going, still influential, that has spread that influence far beyond 20000 AD readers with its acclaimed diaspora of creators who went on to work their magic for major US publishers. (review here)
Continuum, SyFy Channel. The final season aired on SyFy UK just before the festive holidays, and this last season went out with a bang. But each season of this time-travelling conspiracy-loaded sci-fi thriller had a powerful twist – somehow each season, while still progressing the central story of Kiera Cameron, the mother and law enforcement officer swept back to our time along with terrorists who were about to be executed, managed to re-invent itself. So while the main story continued each season also changed the rules – who were the good and the bad became fluid, the goals changed, some of the players came or went, the time-travel aspect allowed for some complex moments, and while doing all of this it still managed to also focus on characters, so we actually cared about them as well as the complex, fluctuating narrative strands, and along the way commenting on the way our society of tiny group of haves and vast group of have nots is going.
Shout outs also to The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a very different looking work from most Studio Ghibli, but no less beautiful, with gorgeous, delicate artwork which looks like it could have come from a 19th century illustrated book. It Follows did something fabulous – reworking the long tired-out Slasher horror, introducing a genuinely creepy concept with nods to genre giants like Carpenter along the way. While flawed both The Force Awakens and Spectre were huge fun and gave me pretty much what I want from Star Wars and Bond respectively, one a cracking new beginning, the other, possibly a good finale for the lead. Kornél Mundruczó’s White God was one of the weirdest I saw all year, a mix of realism and fantasy in Budapest, hard to watch in places as we face the different ways some interact with animals. Noah Baumbach’s latest collaboration with Greta Gerwig (after the brilliant Francis Ha which was one of my previous Best Of the Year picks), I absolutely loved Mistress America, clever, funny, moving, observant in the manner of those fabulous mid-70s Woody Allen movies. I’ll now pretty much watch any film these two make together.
Daredevil and Jessica Jones proved to be terrific and compelling comics adapted to TV, and even after only one season each has me totally hooked. In a very different vein but also Marvel, I adored the Agent Carter series, inventive, often with a sense of fun but a serious core, linking nicely to the films they spun off from, and Hayley Atwell wonderful as Peggy, while scenes of her having to deal with the sexist attitudes of male co-workers in the 40s who she is infinitely better than are well-handled. Can’t wait for season 2. Doctor Who was a bit too hit and miss for me this year – I love Capaldi in the role, but I think many episodes were pretty poor… But those last two episodes? Brilliant. The Man in the High Castle also surprised me – I love the original Phillip K Dick novel, but couldn’t see how a whole series could be spun from a short book. While far from perfect when I gave it a chance I found it very interesting and in several places quite horrifically disturbing. And it’s hard to resist an alt-history, what-if? tale…
Despite picking out a whole pile of books, comics and film I know fine well that in about two weeks I will see something on my shelves and realised I meant to include that, but you can only fit in so much! And that concludes our Best of the Year 2015 posts – you can see all of them, including our daily guest series from December all together here.