Best of the Year 2016 – Joe’s picks
Finally and belatedly after everyone else’s Best Of picks (see here for the previous Best Of posts for 2016), I managed to get my own choices finished. As usual I’ve probably picked too many, but then again it was another year of some wonderful reading and viewing and it was hard to winnow the list down even this far. So for what they are worth, here are the comics and graphic novels, books and films that I most enjoyed over the last twelve months:
Comics & Graphic Novels
One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg, published Jonathan Cape. I loved this right from the start – “in the beginning was the world… And it was weird”. Exceeding even her previous Encyclopedia of Early Earth, this was an utter joy to read. And then re-read. Yes, it was that good. In fact it was quite simply wonderful, a story about stories, the power of tales and how we use them both to explain ourselves but also to try and shape the world, a story about men and women, with a strong, satisfying feminine perspective that a lot of male readers could benefit from. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s love, death, life and how we face those aspects of existence and more importantly how we face each other, all told through a myriad of Scheherezade style stories which interweave perfectly to create a cumulative effect, rendered with beautifully stylish art and presented in a handsome over-sized hardback. I think this just edges out the Red Virgin as my favourite graphic novel of 2016 (my review is here)
Cormorance, Nick Hayes, published Jonathan Cape. I’ve really enjoyed Nick’s previous two books, Rime of the Modern Mariner and Woody Guthrie, and I was also fortunate enough to get to talk to him about the Guthrie work at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years ago. I was curious to see what he was going to do with this work – totally “silent”, no dialogue boxes or speech bubbles, presented in a landscape format. I found it totally immersive, a story about the wrenching pain of losing a loved one and how we try to put ourselves together again after we feel as if we’ve been broken beyond repair. A deeply emotional, warm, human story, elegantly told. (my full review is here)
Mooncop, Tom Gauld, published Drawn & Quarterly. Richard and I have featured Tom’s work a number of times on the blog, fair to say we’re big fans here on the blog. So I was very happy to have a copy of this to review and even happier that I was asked to talk with Tom about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival (it’s one of the nicer aspects of book trade work is just occasionally you get to do something like that with a great author, here’s my festival report). Science fiction is no stranger in Tom’s work, and in this book he takes a charmingly retro-future look to a Lunar colony slowly winding down. Flavoured with that 70s and 80s “how the future will be” style meets the more mundane future that actually happened, this is a delightful, gently melancholic piece with an irresistible happy-sad mixture about finding the place you truly want to be in. (my review is here)
Bera the One Headed Troll, Eric Orchard, published First Second. I thought Eric’s Maddy Kettle and the Thimblewitch was an utter delight – it went on to make my best of the year list and it didn’t surprise me that I would fall in love with his new all-ages work and find it making it onto another of my best of lists. In style, tone and palette it’s quite different from Maddy, but just as satisfying and rewarding, a story about overcoming your own fears because someone else needs you, beautifully illustrated and utterly enchanting for young readers and adults alike, or better still read it with one of the little ones in your life. (my review is here)
Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, Mary and Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape). I always look forward to anything Mary and Bryan have collaborated on, and this work was especially fascinating – it dealt with a period of history I was familiar with (such as the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune of the 1870s) but the remarkable woman whose life they were exploring? No, I had never heard of Louise Michel, and as I read of her astonishing life, her drive, her fierce fire for equality for gender, for freedom for all from poverty, for universal education and health I found myself wondering why I had never heard of her before, because she was an amazing person. Mary’s academic background lends itself to the heavy research required for this kind of work, while Bryan, as you would expect, delivers some wonderful artwork (a moment where an exploding shells caused a tree to rain cherry blossoms, sudden beauty amid war, is just one such moment). I read this several times before I felt ready to review it (see here), and then a few months later I had the pleasure of chairing Mary and Bryan’s book festival event, and boy, was this a book we could have discussed all that afternoon… (you can read a guest Commentary by Mary and Bryan on this book here)
The Trouble With Women, Jacky Fleming (Square Peg). Now here was a book that both made me think and made me laugh. I described it in my review as “a quite brilliant read, deliciously, devilishly satirical, wickedly so in many places”and I stand by that claim. Jacky ponders the distinct lack of female figures in Big History, Art and Science, as contrasted with the many, many Great Men of Genius, many of whom were convinced that women couldn’t also be a genius because it would tax their delicate brains and physical forms, besides they were best just being there to cheer on the Clever Menfolk, surely? Rather than soapbox Jacky uses clever satire and delightful cartoons to make her points, lampooning without mercy. You’d think by this point in human history sexism would be relegated to the dustbin of history, but as we’ve just seen self-confessed gropers can take the highest office, so clearly works like this are going to remain important – one more (especially men) should read.
Modern Slorance: the Berlin Issue, Neil Slorance (self published). It was his slice-of-life travel-lit mini-comics that first introduced me to Neil Slorance’s work, so of course when he announced he had a new one in the works I had to treat myself to a copy. It’s a warm story of spending time with the people who matter to you and sharing your time with them in the nicest way. In my review I called it “an utter, warm-hearted delight to read” and that’s still about as good a summary as I can give it. (reviewed here)
Honourable mentions: Brubaker and Phillips’ Kill or Be Killed from Image (as it’s still ongoing at the moment, first issue reviewed here), Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston (again ongoing, first issue reviewed here), Hellboy and the BPRD 1954 series (first isue reviewed here) and Hellboy in Mexico (Dark Horse, reviewed here), Silver Surfer (Marvel, first issue reviewed here) by Dan Slott and Mike Allred, Dreaming Eagles (Dynamite, first issue reviewed here) by Garth Ennis and Simon Coleby, Red Thorn (DC/Vertigo, here are David and Meghan talking about the series in a guest Commentary) by David Baillie and Meghan Hetrick, Paradise Lost by Pablo Auladell (Jonathan Cape, reviewed here), and Black Panther, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze (first issue reviewed here).
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence (review here), and Insurgence (review here), Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books. I’ve read every one of Ken’s books (including his and Iain Banks’ shared poetry collection); I usually have a pile of books waiting to be read, but when there is a new one from Ken I try to clear a path to get to that right away. He is consistently one of our most intelligent and thoughtful science fiction scribes, delivering fascinating ideas that explore morality, politics, science, often with a playful wit, and yet he also gives the readers some terrific action. In the first two volumes of this new trilogy we get some cracking space battle action as well as more thoughtful segments on political extremism (on both left and right) and the nature of consciousness. Hugely recommend SF reading.
Medusa’s Web, Tim Powers, (Corvus). Powers has long been one of my favourite writers, ever since coming across a copy of Anubis Gates many years ago, and he’s also one of those writers that many other authors tend to pick out as a favourite too. He has a particularly fascinating penchant for working real people and events into his fiction, and here he has a pair of now adult orphaned sibling returning to their cousins who they grew up with in their now deceased aunt’s sprawling old LA home of Caveat (the name does not evoke homely warmth or comfort), the start of a complex tale which crosses the best part of a century, taking in forbidden knowledge, a hidden world, and connections to the early days of the embryonic Hollywood in the 1920s. (reviewed here)
Fallen Glory, James Crawford (Old Street Publishing). Last year one of my book picks was Darran Anderson’s splendid Imaginary Cities. In August he was talking about this at the Edinburgh Book Festival, along with James Crawford discussing Fallen Glory, and that’s how I came to James’ book, one of those works you find because you liked another book by another author which lead you to a literary event which exposed you to more reading. I love when that happens. James selects a number of famous structures from across the long history of human civilisation, from the Tower of Babel to the maze of the Minotaur in ancient Crete to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, all buildings now vanished, but which continue to exert a hold on the human mind and imagination. Part history, part architecture, part art, part psychology and sociology, this is a fascinating and yet very accessible book, and one which leaves you wanting to go off to read a lot of other related works.
Down Station, Simon Morden (Gollancz). The Philip K Dick Award-winning Morden’s first book for top Brit SF&F publisher Gollancz, and by the gods, it is a stormer, right from the start. Beginning in a very mundane, everyday part of London as a disparate group of workers assemble for the off-hours shift in the Underground, maintenance crews, track walkers and the likes. This everyday workplace situation is suddenly turned on its head as an unspecified something happens above, a roar, a raging heat, the work crew of men and women run for their lives along the dark night-time track tunnels. A terrorist bombing? A nuclear attack? They don’t know and don’t have time to find out. Trapped they find a door that shouldn’t be there and step through in desperation, finding themselves in a different time and place… The idea of being plucked from your everyday life to a fantastical realm is as old as the fantasy genre, but here Morden gives is some serious contemporary twisting and brings forth a page-turner that it’s hard to pull away from, with some very believable ordinary characters dropped into something beyond any experience, with yawning horror waiting all around them. Brilliant.
Honourable mentions: this year I decided I should work through all of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels in order, as part of my non-SF reading. I think I read a couple way back in my twenties but despite a long love of Film Noir, for some reason I had never read all of these, some of the most iconic books in all of crime fiction. He wasn’t the first with a world-weary gumshoe, nor the last, but Chandler crystalised so many of the genre’s conventions. And oh, his way with words, especially his descriptions, “It was a blonde, the sort of blonde that would make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window…” It seems like almost every paragraph or two there’s a a cracking line, these are utter jewels in the crown of crime fiction, and massively influential and oh so damned stylish.
Mike Carey’s Fellside was a powerful and frequently disturbing tale of a former junkie, found guilty of a crime she may not have committed, or perhaps she did – she certainly wants to blame herself and be scourged for what she thinks were her actions, even incarceration in the Fellside prison not being enough for her guilt, as a strong supernatural element moves into her life. As compelling as it can be upsetting, it is, as you’d expect from Mike, a serious page-turner. Two years ago I picked Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical as one of my best SF books of the year. Just recently the third book, Liberation, came out (complete with a quote from my review of volume one on the back). For some reason I never got the second volume though, so I had to track down a copy and read that first before starting this one – so not having finished it yet I didn’t think I could include it in the main list, but ye gods, both second book and this new third volume are so utterly gripping that I have to give it a shout out here. I’ll try and post a full review of it in the coming weeks.
Film & TV
Good grief, my list on here is way too long as well, but there were a lot of films I really enjoyed this year.
Kubo and the Two Strings, directed by Travis Knight. I love animation, in fact I am a devout Seventh Day Cartoonist. I like all forms, but I have a special love for stop-motion animation, and oh my, Kubo is an intoxicatingly gorgeous example of the medium. The story of a young boy who had to flee a family dispute trying to reclaim his life and legacy is an old one, but warmly told here, invested with a huge amount of emotion and an enormous amount of sheer beauty, while also celebrating the power of storytelling.
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Being adapted from a story by Ted Chiang, who is one of the best of the contemporary crop of SF writers, I had high hopes for this – assuming they didn’t go all “Hollywood” with the stories. And no, Villeneuve restraints that impulse, so no shoving in some overblown combat between humans and aliens, no dressing up Amy Addams linguist in sexy Lara Croft gear. Instead we have a film about first contact handled with sensitivity and intelligence, and, most refreshing, the film is carried by the female lead – the leading male characters are really in supporting roles here, Amy’s character is simply more intelligent and intiutive, both intellectually and emotionally. Villeneuve is the director in charge of Blade Runner 2049, and seeing Arrival has increased my confidence in that project.
The Last Man on the Moon, directed by Mark Craig (reviewed here). I’ve been in love with the idea of space travel since I was a very small child – I was born at the height of the Space Race and it’s mixed into my blood. I still feel my pulse rise at the sight and sound of a Saturn V rocket lifting from the Cape, I’ve even shaken hands with an Apollo commander. So fair to say I have watched and read a lot on the space age, especially the magnificent Apollo programme. This documentary though, is a bit different – based on the memoirs of Gene Cernan this is a very personal view of the Moon programme and what it cost some of those involved, from friends killed in training accidents to the strain on his marriage and missing much of his children’s growing up period to be committed to the mission. It’s a fascinating insight into what it costs to be a Hero, and what it costs those around you, giving it a melancholy edge, and yet ultimately it remains uplifting, a personal testimony of the very few who truly went where no man has gone before.
The Love Witch, written and directed by Anna Biller. I saw this (and Biller herself) at my annual Edinburgh Film Fest week off and adored it. Biller not only wrote and directed it, she had a hand in almost every aspect, down to the set and costume design. The result is a film that looks astonishing – think on those visually iconic colour-coded rooms in Corman and Price’s Masque of the Red Death crossed with a Hammer sensibility (except while remaining quite sexy it’s not exploitative in the way those older films could be) and a sort-of Tarantino-esque 70s influence. The gender issues are contemporary and the film is clearly made with so much love and heart by Biller, she’s poured herself into making it and that really comes across here. Sassy, sexy, funny, emotional and glorious to look at. Biller is a film-maker to watch out for.
Westworld. The original 70s movie was fun – and created that iconic black-clad gunslinger played by Yul Brinner, a prototype for the unstoppable Terminator later on. But there was a whole playground of concepts it never had time to explore, and this high-quality series (partly created by Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher, who he has collaborated with on his superb films) has the space to let the ideas breathe. Slow burning it weaves a complex series of interconnected situations between the “hosts” (the androids in the theme park) and the humans, expands the history of their creation and evolution and ponders the morality of the humans who use these artificial beings that are designed to be as human as possible as playthings (sex and violence never far away), and the philosophy of what makes a being an individual, conscious entity. It takes its time as it walks through the hidden maze, but stick with it to that final episode, it’s well worth your attention, while Anthony Hopkins and Thandie Newton’s characters are especially compelling.
The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers. I’ve loved horror cinema since I was a kid first seeing TV screenings of the classic 1930s Univeral horrors, the the Hammer films, the Video Nasties of the 80s and on. These days though I don’t often see any I find particularly scary. Many go for the vastly overused and just plain mean “torture porn”, others rely on sudden jump cuts and loud bursts of music in place of actual scares or building atmosphere or characters. The Witch is a million miles from those kind of lazy efforts that pass themselves off as horror, right from the start in colonial New England it is permeated with a chill atmosphere of unease, and like a tale by Poe that unease grows, the sense of disturbance, of something being just wrong. It avoids the easy make-them-jump scares and instead sinks slow chills into your bones, while young Anya Taylor-Joy gives a remarkable performance – I think she will be a young actor to keep an eye out for. A modern horror masterpiece.
High Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley. I love JG Ballard’s writing, but it isn’t the easiest to to adapt to other media such as film. But when I heard Ben Wheatley was directing it, and that he was sticking with the 1970s setting of the book, added to the fact he had Tom Hiddlestone as the main star, and I was more confident, and that optimism was rewarded with a brilliant and unusual British film and an excellent take on the great Ballard. And oh, Hiddlestone was perfect as a Ballardian character. Exquisitely shot, the film exudes a retro-future feel, a 1970s idea of social and technological progress coming together only to fall apart in a melange of disparate humanity, class and snobbery, decadence and brutality with dark humour mixed in.
Deadpool, directed by Tim Miller. There’s probably not much more I can add to this, so many have commented on it already. I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than perhaps a middling superhero action flick with some comedy. Instead I got one of the funniest films of the year with a great twist on the regular superhero movie, quite refreshing after the many we’ve had in recent years. Much as I’ve loved those, a lot of them take themselves awfully seriously and have forgotten comics (and comics based movies) are meant to be fun sometimes, and oh boy this is fun! It has the action, the violence, the postmodern self-referencing and terrific comedy and such a damned watchable cast (Reynolds just has Deadpool down perfectly, Firefly’s Baccarin is a terrific foil for him). So much fun. And that post-credits Ferris Bueller homage was a wee cherry on the cake.
The Hunt for the Wilder People, directed by Taika Waititi.Waititi brought us the simply brilliant mockumentary about a group of vampires house-sharing in New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows. His latest is an utter gem, a wee delight of an Indy Kiwi movie of a troubled kid, Ricky, in care being given a last chance in a foster home and a curmudgeonly Uncle Hec (the brilliant Sam Neill) forced into going on the run in the outback after Hec’s wife – the one who wanted to adopt Ricky – dies. It’s brilliantly funny, often wonderfully absurd as the two slowly come to bond more with one another while a national manhunt elevates them to national stardom. In the wrong hands this would have been predictable and horribly saccharine, instead the bonding is often darkly funny and believable, and never sugary. A delightful Indy film that left me smiling all the way home from the cinema.
Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards. Oh where to start with this last-moment addition to my list? I had heard that this was a dirtier, darker, more adult take on the Star Wars universe, and so it was, but it was also, quite simply, brilliant. I saw Edwards six years ago on stage at the film fest after screening his micro-budget SF flick Monsters, and it’s wonderful as a movie lover to see a new talent at the film festival go on to achieve something like this. I know some of you have been waiting to see this during the holidays, so I will resist the urge to talk about some potential spoiler-y scenes; suffice to say it is hard-hitting, compelling, well-paced, and made by someone who clearly loves Star Wars but brought his own style and influences (I thought there was more than a touch of the classic WWII Brit war movie in some parts). Stuffed with elements for the older fans – especially those of us who were there for the first film, the original Force Generation – both small nods and some major ones I didn’t expect. In his review here Garth said it was up there with Empire, and he was right. This is just brilliant on so many levels.
Honourable mentions: Jessica Jones (another solid slice of superhero TV by Marvel and good to see a female character headlining; companion series Luke Cage was terrific too), Lucifer (I know it veers from the Mike Carey series hugely, but Tom Ellis plays Lucifer with such relish and charm I’ve grown to love it), Yoga Hosers (another film festival screening for me), huge silly fun by Kevin Smith, who have the audience a chat after the screening, ably carried by his and Johnny Depp’s young daughters as the leads (reviewed here), Doctor Strange (The Cumberbatch, some trippy visuals, appropriately, and wonderful Tilda Swinton, queen of the world).
Tale of Tales (fascinating adult take on fairy tales with amazing American, Brit and European cast, a bit uneven but still compelling), Captain America: Civil War (“he was my friend!” “So was I!” both sides are right, both sides also wrong, result: terrific emotional drama as well as action), Star Trek: Beyond (so good to finally see the new movies embrace the idea of the Enterprise as an exploration vessel at last, more in keeping with Trek. Wretched to think we will not see young Anton Yeltsin play Chekov ever again though), The Girl With All the Gifts (a tense and often emotional adaptation of Mike Carey’s superbly gripping novel), and Phantom Boy, a European animated film from Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol which was ideal for both kids and adults alike.
And I better wrap it up there or I could go on for even longer! And as usual I am sure that a few days after I post this I will realise I left out another comic or book or film I meant to give props to, but that’s always the way…