Best of the Year 2017 – Joe’s picks
And finally my own selection for my annual Best of the Year picks (see the other 2017 picks here), starting, as always, with the comics works. While I was working on this over the holidays I saw Vice magazine’s comics person do a “top ten” comics of the year, except they couldn’t find ten good comics from 2017, so the list was only eight. And I thought really? I have been working trying to winnow my list down! There are more than I can fit it (again, like previous years). I think the Vice approach was foolish and downright insulting to the many comics creators who have worked hard to put out an enormously diverse range of titles all through the year, if you genuinely can’t pick out even ten perhaps just don’t run an article, and certainly don’t phrase it like that either. Perhaps their reviewer simply didn’t read enough…
I do read a lot, and even with this over-sized list I am missing out many comics and creators, from works I was lucky enough to be sent, issues I plucked from the weekly new releases in our stores for a gander, and a pile of small press comics picked up at conventions. Not enough to fill a top ten? Unbelievable, I would have spent more time laughing if I wasn’t so busy trying to narrow down my own list, which even slimmed down (relatively, but as editor I allow myself this annual indulgence of picking too many) still takes in science fiction, biography, social issue, the history of science, glorious fairy tales and more, so many different works which were all brilliant in their own ways, and I’m still aware of lots of other works I heard people talking about that I simply couldn’t add to my pile. Said it before, and saying it again, we have a true embarrassment of riches in the comics world, there really is treasure everywhere. Talking of which, showtime:
Comics and Graphic Novels
Grandville: Force Majeure, Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape)
Bryan Talbot, for me, is simply one of the finest comickers the British Isles has produced. Like France’s Tardi he can move through all sorts of genres and storytelling, adjusting his approach and art to suit. And here, oh my god, here the art is simply stunning – it took him three days to draw some pages, incredibly laborious and time consuming, but ye four colour gods, it is all there on the pages to drink in. A triumphant finale to a superb series, this treats the characters with respect, is packed with references which demand multiple reviews, and that artwork, not to mention the touching homage and dedication to the late Leo Baxendale. This is the work of a master of the medium at the top of his form. (reviewed here)
Hawkeye: Kate Bishop, Kate Thompson and Leonardo Romero (Marvel)
I loved Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye series a few years ago, based around Clint, but Kate Bishop featured heavily. Kate Thompson and Leonardo Romero’s take carries some of the style of that series, notably its sense of fun and deceptively light touch, but is also very much its own beast, and it is Kate’s show (although others cameo, such as Jessica Jones). Relocated to the west coast and trying to make it as a PI (sort of, not actually licensed), and of course still doing the superhero thing, she hooks up with a good team of friends, Buffy-style, and this gives the stories a lot of humanity and heart, while the art borrows from the imagery of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel for her superhero look (no bad thing!). Coming to an end this year, sadly, but oh, what a ride it has been, this is simply pure comics reading joy and every issue has left me with a big smile. (first issue reviewed here)
The Little Mermaid, Metaphrog (Papercutz)
After the achingly beautiful The Red Shoes, Metaphrog return with a second Hans Christian Andersen adaptation, again published in a lovely small hardback from Papercutz (it’s a thing of beauty itself, a delight to have on your shelves). This does not shy away from the darker elements of this story – like most fairy tales, it is, after all, a cautionary tale as much as it is a fantasy, a way for younger readers to learn important lessons – but it is also quite simply ravishing to look at, a wonderful slice of fantasy with superb art and a delight for younger readers and for adults who still get it. Or better still, read it with your child or niece or nephew. (reviewed here)
Graphic Science, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)
I’m always excited when Darryl has a new work coming out – he’s featured a number of times on my Best Of selections over the year. And this one is close to my heart, a history of science. Of course it can’t cover all of that history, so Darryl selects several different scientists who made a major breakthrough or discovery. But more than that, he doesn’t just explore their contributions to our understanding of the world, he deliberately picks people for their social and cultural lives too, from a black man, the children of slaves, to a working class woman whose work was used by socially higher men to build their reputations on. It’s about discovery, but it’s also about people, about societies, about attitudes to colour, gender, class and all the other artificial walls societies build up to create divisions, and the combination of social and cultural observation brings the history to life. This isn’t just date and facts, it’s people. (reviewed here)
Nick Cave: Mercy on Me, Reinhard Kleist (SelfMadeHero)
I love German creator Reinhard’s work – he bowled me over with his Johnny Cash graphic biography a decade or so back (also published SelfMadeHero), and I’ve since had the good fortune to chat with him for the Edinburgh Book Festival. His take on one of the most unique musicians and writers of recent decades, Nick Cave, was always going to be interesting. And indeed I think this is simply his best work since Cash – like that book he doesn’t do a simple, chronological biography, rather he moves between the real life events and the art, sometimes the two combining into fantasy sequences, which give a real sense of this wonderfully maverick musician and writer. (reviewed here)
Venice, Jiro Taniguchi, (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
The late Taniguchi’s Venice was first created for part of a range of travel comics by top creators for Louis Vuitton, but fortunately for us Fanfare/Ponent Mon brought it to a wider audience, because, oh, this is just simply beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Searching the city of bridges for a recently unveiled old family connection, this allows Taniguchi to simply drink in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet and present it to us through the eyes of an artist. (reviewed here)
Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)
I love Tardi, he is, for me, one of the finest comics creators in Europe, able to turn his hand to any genre from the glorious adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec to the horror of It Was the War of the Trenches. Here he is adapting Malet’s classic French crime novel, and it just drips Noir – the tough PI, the troublesome cops, the mystery and of course there’s always a dame… Malet himself said that none of the various films made of his books ever captured his Noir world the way Tardi’s art does. (reviewed here)
Livestock, Hannah Berry (Jonathan Cape)
I’ve followed Hannah’s work since her debut graphic novel, and was sorry to read that this may well be her last (not her last comics work but perhaps her last full graphic novel – they take so much time for so little financial reward they’re not really viable). This is a delicious satire on celebrity, manufactured news, political fakery and gullible publics, and it had the dubious honour of seeing some of the elements Hannah was satirising actually becoming real as our world went bonkers in the last couple of years while she was working on it, making it even more frighteningly on the nose. (reviewed here)
Can Opener’s Daughter, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)
“I thought boys were great. I wanted to punch every one of their cheeky little faces till they bled. Well, that’s what I thought I wanted to do to them.” The sequel to the fascinating and highly unusual Motherless Oven, the Can Opener’s Daughter follows Vera Pike’s story, and expands that odd world of Motherless Oven with its discomforting mixture of the mundane, everyday and the totally bizarre. Visually rich, emotional and building up more of that unusual world, it draws you in even more than Motherless Oven and will leave you hungry for the third book. (reviewed here)
The Facts of Life, Paula Knight (Myriad Editions)
There’s something just perfect in using comics for autobiography, the combination of text and imagery can evoke so much in terms of emotion, empathy and recognition from facial clues, to recognising elements of the world you lived through yourself (styles, music, and more). Paula’s book is extremely honest about a very sensitive and personal subject, but like a lot of comics work that you could loosely classify as “graphic medicine” there’s a lot of power to be drawn from reading this, a lot comes from sharing, for author and reader, the release of knowing that others also experienced similar problems and how they’ve dealt with them can be therapeutic, it’s a great use of our beloved medium. (reviewed here)
And I will cheat a bit by doing some “honourable mentions” as well. Yes, I know, my Best Of list is already longer than it really should be, but again there is just so much damned good material out there, including some like Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight (first issue reviewed here), which is still in progress, but so far is one of the best psychological takes on the Joker-Batman relationship since Killing Joke. Jeff Loveness and Jakub Rebelka’s Judas has just started (first issue reviewed here) but the opening issue blew me away. Mignola, Roberson and Mitten’s Rasputin is proving to be a great new angle on the early Hellboy universe (reviewed here). Bobby Joseph and Joseph Samuels started off my reading year with some wicked and clever humour and satire in Knockabout’s Scotland Yardie, packed with clever visual jokes and background details and social commentary (reviewed here). Rich Tomasso’s Spy Seal is still in progress, but the first three issues or so I’ve seen are so much fun, a love letter to the European Clear Line school of adventure comics, he even includes a brilliant Tintin homage.
Vincent Zabus and Thomas Campi’s Magritte was an appropriately odd and unusual look at the work of the great Surrealist (reviewed here), while another SelfMadeHero title, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2, saw Leah Moore and John Reppion assemble a great team of artists to adapt several classic and creepy M R James spook tales best read on a winter’s night – reviewed here). Jody House and Jacob Edgar’s Moneypenny was sadly only a one-off issue spun out of Dynamite’s excellent Bond series of comics, but it was cracking and really makes me want a full mini-series set around Moneypenny (reviewed here). Asaf Hanuka returned with a new Realist collection, which was funny and touching and played on many notes of life we can all empathise with (reviewed here). Matt Garvey and Dizeves’s Indy take started off (deliberately) seeming like a straight superhero tale, the sort of thing we have seen before, then whoosh, whipped the rug out from under my feet in an extremely satisfying manner (reviewed here), while Hamish Steele’s Pantheon was clever, hugely funny and had plenty of Ancient Egyptian knob gags (reviewed here).
Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft (Orbit Books)
Bancroft is new to me, but on the power of this compelling and intoxicating debut he’s a writer I will be following in future. I often get a sixth sense vibe before even starting a book, and this one set of my Spidey sense as soon as it arrived on my desk. A rich fantasy set around a very fish out of water, straight-laced scholar having to ascend the “ringdoms” (circular kingdoms on each level) of the Tower of Babel, trying to find his kidnapped wife, this is unusual and totally absorbing, with some superb world-building, and amazing descriptive phrasing that made me think of a fantasy version of Raymond Chandler (no surprise to learn Bancroft is also a poet, his way with words is fabulous). (reviewed here)
Provenance, Ann Leckie (Orbit Books)
Ann Leckie exploded onto the science fiction scene just a few years ago with Ancillary Justice, which went on to win just about every award going on both sides of the Atlantic and featured on my own Best Of list that year. Provenance isn’t a direct sequel to that series, but it is set in that universe, on a different world and society, nicely expanding that universe in a very satisfying manner. (reviewed here)
Corporation Wars: Emergence, Ken MacLeod (Orbit Books)
Ken’s work has been among my favourite British SF reading for more than two decades, consistently through-provoking and intelligent. The Corporation Wars is Ken’s first trilogy in many years, although with the three books being released roughly within a year the cumulative effect is more like reading one longer novel (with a pause between each). This is a classic have cake and eat it scenario – we get some big, deep space action scenes which are thrilling, but this is combined with heavyweight moral issues – the rights of any sentient being, artificial or human, how human is a person who is now a digitised memory simulation of themselves millennia after bodily death? Simply brilliant. (reviewed here)
Chalk, Paul Cornell (Tor)
From comics to his television scripts to his books, Paul Cornell is always a writer worth checking out, with an uncanny ability to take you in directions you didn’t expect. And in Chalk those directions are to some very dark and disturbing places, moving between the horrible mundanity of the school bullies to the supernatural menace, and all drawing on the folklore of the land, while mining it with details from a 1980s teenhood that will bring back memories for many of a certain age. (reviewed here)
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (Fleet)
The Arthur C Clarke Award winner for 2017 – if the winner is one I haven’t read yet I like to try and make a point of picking it up. Set in an alternate history this takes the real-world underground railroad that was used to smuggle escaped slaves to the northern states in 19th century America and makes it a literal underground railway of concealed tunnels and locomotives. It’s a powerful but often horrific and disturbing read, not least in the descriptions of the abuses visited upon the slaves on the plantations, and it should be disturbing, all the more so because we know although this is a fiction, it’s based on cruel events that were far to awfully real. Given the wretched rise of bigots, racists and, let’s be honest, bloody Nazis being so open with flaunting their hate right now, this book becomes even more powerful and more important.
The Boy on the Bridge, M R Carey, (Orbit Books)
A return to the ravaged world of The Girl With All the Gifts, rather than a direct sequel – there are some connections which will satisfy readers of the first book, but really this is mostly a standalone novel, which takes place in that ruined world of fungal infection and the “hungries”, following a desperate group of scientists and soldier in an armoured mobile lab exploring what remains of Britain, clutching at anything which might yield a clue or a cure, while back at base, even in the face of possible extinction, power blocs vie for control of what is left. Hugely compelling and immersive. (reviewed here)
Rig, Jon Wallace (Gollancz)
Jon Wallace’s first book, Barricade, came with some heavy blurb claiming it as an heir to Richard Morgan’s blistering Altered Carbon (which will appear as a TV show next month). Normally I don’t believe the blurb, but drok me if it wasn’t actually true this time – it was indeed a hard-boiled slice of scifi which mixed strong action with a lot of intelligence, ideal for anyone like me who loved Altered Carbon indeed. This latest book brings us even closer to Kenstibec, the former Ficial (an artificial lifeform), now biologically all but human after an infection, still thinking like a Ficial but prone to the same problems we mere humans have now he isn’t a superior design. But there are advantages – friendship being one. Wallace pits Ken and friends into a dangerous post-apocalyptic world that draws on the previous novels while mixing in elements like Mad Max and others. Bloody brilliant. (reviewed here)
Last Days of New Paris, China Mieville, (Macmillan)
Here I must apologies – James and I had an oh-so clever plan to do an unusual review of this earlier in the year, both of us reading it then planning to do a joint discussion rather than straight review. And as we planned it life got in the way and we never got another chance to return to the idea. But oh this was good. And odd and unusual, but it’s China Mieville so I’d be disappointed if this was not the case. In this alternate history Paris is still occupied by the Nazis, fought by resistance groups of artists – especially Surrealists, using art that has become real in this fight, symbolism from the world of 20th century modern art festoons what is left of the city, art the Nazis famously thought “degenerate” and hated, so it seems appropriate to turn it against them in this story which is part war tale, part fantasy, part an exploration of the effects art -especially art with an ideology – has on our culture. Fascinating.
The Un-Discovered Islands, Malachy Tallack and Katie Scott (Polygon)
This actually came out in 2016, but I came to it in 2017 when it was recommended to me by a friend who had borrowed a couple of my previous Best Of book picks, Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities and James Crawford’s Fallen Glory. Much shorter than those two, but with gorgeous illustrations by Katie Scott, this was an utter delight, taking in lands “undiscovered” – from some that were simply misidentified by early sailors to whoppers told as tall tales but believed so often they made it into maps for decades or even centuries, from Hy Brasil to the Island of the Seven Cities. Real history, fake history, folk-belief and myth clash with actual exploration and yet even these thoroughly debunked lands retain magical power over our imaginations, and Tallack and Scott understand and celebrate this. A fascinating delight.
Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve
Here we have a film that had an almost universal acclaim from film critics and the fans alike, and yet, sadly, did not do the enormous box office the studio, with its huge budget investment, expected, making it unlikely we will see a follow up any time soon. Which is a terrible shame, because this was superb – I was worried as the original is one of my top ten favourite films of all time, but Villeneuve impressed me with Arrival, and I trusted him here and I think that trust paid off with a film that paid homage to the original but also built on it to be its own beast, with glorious visuals (I saw it twice, second time in IMAX). Music, soundscape and visual all beautifully timed and integrated with the story to deliver an intelligent yet visually spectacular science fiction tale. I’ll be adding this to my film library when it comes out on disc and I can see me rewatching it over the years as much as I do the original.
A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery
This was one of the year’s more unusual and quirky films for me – it’s a ghost story, but it’s not a spook tale, a chiller or horror, rather it is an Arthouse rumination on the nature of mortality, of time and the things that bind us to the people and places around us. For some it may be “too Arthouse” (the ten minute scene of bereaved Rooney Mara eating pie, for example), and I get that, but for me it was one of those films that was just so utterly compelling, I was totally drawn into it. The ghost of a man returning to his home, but in the kid’s ghost costume of a sheet over the hear, silent, haunting unseen around his former lover and life and home, and now adrift from the world he is no longer part of but cannot quite depart, time for him in this state is fractured and fluid. A are thing, a ghost story which does not frighten but leaves you pondering some of the big questions we all face about life, love and mortality.
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan
Here’s another one I ended up seeing twice in the cinema. I’ve admired Nolan’s work since Memento, and would pretty much go to see anything he made. But this was special, even by his standards, this is one of those turning points of recent history, one within living memory for some who went through it, but it is also modern mythology, of a desperate defeat that somehow becomes a peculiar victory. In a tale that involved hundreds of thousands Nolan takes a three pronged approach – land, air and sea, with each revolving around each other to show the events from different angles, the few in each standing for the greater number who truly took part. The soundscape is as remarkable as the visuals, from the horrific scream of diving Stukas to the magnificent roar of the Merlin engines as the Spitfires roar overheard, or the terrifying sound of metal rending as a ship starts to capsize. The relentless nature and the use of practical instead of CG effects (a Nolan hallmark) combine to draw you in. I saw a news report of one 90-year old veteran in Canada who saw the film and remarked it felt so much like being back there he thought he could almost look and see his old comrades on the beach.
Thor Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi
I love Kiwi creator Taika Waititi’s work – What We Do in the Shadows is genius, last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople left me with a smile on my face for days afterwards. What would this New Zealander who normally created his own, small budget, Indy films do with one of the biggest movie franchises on the planet? Make it spark and fizz, deliver a heavy duty storyline (the end of days) and do it at a cracking pace and laced with so much humour. Despite the trappings of big budget superherodom, this film has Waititi’s fingerprints all over it – clearly Marvel were smart enough not just to hire him but to give him free reign to do things in his style, and by Odin’s beard, it’s so enjoyable, like Guardians of the Galaxy enjoyable.
Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins
While Ragnarok may well have been more fun, for me Wonder Woman’s big screen solo outing still beat it out for best superhero movie of the year. This felt like WW done right, with respect for what she is, and she felt like the hero we need in these troubled times, not a brooding, dark avenger, but the hero who is powered by a burning anger against the unjust and those who use their strength on the weak, someone who will always stand in front of the innocent and those in need, and a hero who draws as much on love and compassion as she does raw power – a power she herself doesn’t realise but will come into as the film progresses. The moment Diana steps into the hell of No Man’s Land is simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking as the music swells and she swats aside bullets and bombs, only to become bogged down by the horrendous power of modern, mechanised weapons; it felt like a nod to the actual young men who went into that war thinking it was a jolly adventure that would be over quickly only to be hit with the horrific truth. That scene is a fall from grace, from naivety, both of Diana and the Lost Generation, but she emerges from it with the help of he friends, stronger, more determined and yet still, always, driven by compassion.
The Farthest, directed by Emer Reynolds
I saw this at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was the best film I saw at the festival this year. A documentary about the remarkable Voyager missions, this covered forty years and twelve billion miles. Director Emer Reynolds doesn’t just discuss the history, the science (NASA and JPL opened their archives to her), but also teases out the human side of this great voyage of discovery, really bringing out the emotional side from those who worked on this project (many for most of their careers). This mixes the ground-breaking discoveries – this was really going where no-one has gone before, exploring worlds we had only seen dimly through a telescope – but despite the astronomical scales it retains the human perspective (and as a bonus features Carl Sagan dancing to Chuck Berry, whose Johnny B Goode is on the golden disc aboard Voyager). A magnificent history of what wonders humans can achieve when not fighting each other but working together, it exudes not only wonder but a warm optimism. (reviewed here)
Loving Vincent, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
I had been waiting for months to see this – Wim first blogged about it on here ages back, a story about the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, but told with artwork painted directly over live action (sort of like the old Rotoscope like Bakshi used for the animated Lord of the Rings). But in this case some 65,000 oil paintings, all in the style of Van Gogh. The result is like walking through the world seeing through the artist’s eyes, it’s magical and breath-taking while never forgetting that he was a real person, not some cut-out figure, that he had friends and family. Achingly beautiful, this has to be seen by any art lover, a gorgeous combination of art, live film and animation.
In This Corner of the World, directed by Sunao Katabuchi.
This was a gorgeous piece of animation from Japan which I caught at the film festival. Following a woman through her life from her family home to marriage to a man in another city, it takes us through turbulent times in Japanese history, the decade leading up to and then into the Second World War. But this isn’t a tale of heroic, soldierly deeds, this is the view from the home front, richly emotional and beautifully composed. (reviewed here)
A few quick honourable mentions that I don’t have room to add to the main list here – I started the film year with Martin Scorces’s The Silence. In fact I saw it post-hangover on January 1st, my first film of the year, and glad to report one of our greatest film-makers of all time has lost none of his power. Kiki Sugino both directed and starred in Yukki-onna: the Snow Woman, another film fest movie I caught last summer, an unusual love story filtered through the eyes of an outsider in a fairly closed society and layered through the rich tapestry of Japanese folklore and delivered in a dreamlike manner. (reviewed here).
Okja, directed by Bong Joon Ho was another of my film fest screenings – one of those controversial Netflix funded feature films that mostly goes straight to streaming I’m glad I got the chance to see it in a cinema. A delectable satire of the food industry and the truths many of us blind ourselves to conveniently (such as horrific mass factory farming and the cruelty to animals), this managed to be funny and touching, and also reminded me how glad I am to be a vegetarian… (reviewed here)
Ceyda Torun’s Kedi was a wonderfully warm film from Turkey, a documentary ostensibly about the cats (mostly feral) who live in an area of Istanbul, actually it is really about community, about the people, the relationships within their neighbourhood, and the important role the cats play in this, and how it has been lost in other parts of this teeming, ancient city as the inevitable developers roll in and crush old neighbourhoods so they can erect glass and steel skyscrapers on the land (reviewed here). And one last shout out, Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle had themes common to Studio Ghibli (going on a journey of discovery, coming to terms with nature) but visually has more in common with the Herge-esque Clear Line style, this animation was totally wordless – and unbelievably beautiful. Immerse yourself into it as you would a clear, blue ocean.
And that’s it for another year! Yes, again I indulged myself with a very long list, but I saw and read more than this, this really is about as much as I could winnow it down! And they were all good and deserve another shout out.