The SKTCHIES: Favorite Comics of 2015 (Part Five)
Welcome back to The SKTCHIES, SKTCHD.com’s first annual year-end awards. With The SKTCHIES, it’s less about defining the best in comics. Instead, it’s more about sharing our favorites, and the ones that helped make this year a great one for the medium. And today, our comic-centric section – and the SKTCHIES themselves – comes to a close.
It turns out there are a lot of comics coming out these days, and they are more diverse and interesting than ever. New publishers are springing up all over the place, comics are being released in new ways, and more varied subjects and stories are being told than at any point in comic book history. What does that mean for my year end awards? Well, it means they’re going to be big in response. This week, I’ll be revealing five different titles a day that were my favorite – not necessarily best, but my favorite – comics of the year, with each getting their own SKTCHIES award. While that means they’re getting a fake award, it is in fact a fake award that celebrates their very real quality. Even with that larger than usual list, I can’t cover everything, so please, by all means – share your favorites in the comments.
So without further ado, here are the last five titles – ordered alphabetically by title – that are amongst my very favorite comics this year. Give it a look, and thanks for reading the last couple weeks. As a quick programming note, SKTCHD will be taking the rest of the year off besides the weekly episodes of Off Panel and perhaps an interview here or there. We’ll be back after the new year with our regularly scheduled programming.
The “History is Fun!” Award: Step Aside, Pops (Drawn & Quarterly)
History is defined by the victors, or so the old saying goes. Those who are still there in the end get to decide how people are represented and how everything went down. It’s a natural benefit of winning, but I’m sure few would disagree with my personal variation: we’re all winners when Kate Beaton’s defining history.
That’s not to say Beaton, who is one of the best and brightest cartoonists around, is simply making things up. It’s clear she puts a lot of time into ensuring that her work on her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant and in collections like this year’s Step Aside, Pops are as reflective of the facts and source material as she can be while still finding humor in it. She just finds kernels of hilarity in incredible places, like Goethe dealing with adoring fans or Chopin and Listz’s friendship/rivalry, and fans those flames until they are a torrent of pure entertainment. Beaton’s ability to take aspects of people and characters and create comedy from them is unrivaled in the comic medium, and this latest collection showcases that in full.
One of the rarest gifts she demonstrates throughout this book, though, is how well she refines these famous and complex individuals into short three panel strips. It reminds me of something someone once told me, in which they said “you can tell when someone really knows and appreciates a subject…it’s when they explain easily enough so anyone can understand it.” If a storyteller can express something in condensed fashion, that’s how you know they fully know and appreciate it. And it works for Beaton: she can express difficult people in wondrously simple ways. Her cartooning helps, of course, as it’s so full of life and charm that her pictures say a lot the words can’t capture. It’s lovely work, and less focused on being real and more about selling the narrative and jokes. It’s the straw that stirs the drink of the book.
Kate Beaton is comic book royalty, and work like this just reminds us all as to why that’s true. She’s one of a kind, and her work is a perpetual reminder of how deep and varied the comic form can be.
The Wooderson Award: SuperMutant Magic Academy (Drawn & Quarterly)
I’m confident in saying that Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, but in this case, it’s most definitely a good thing. Originally a webcomic before being published in print this year by Drawn & Quarterly, SuperMutant Magic Academy is a comic strip (of a sort) that tells the idiosyncratic stories of the titular school. On Off Panel recently, I suggested it feels like the lovechild between the Harry Potter series (naturally) with Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, but even that feels a bit off if only because just how spectacularly odd this comic can get. It gives you an idea of what this book is all about though.
Take Everlasting Boy, for example. There will be little interludes here or there that star this character, and they are often odd little existential gems about the history of the world through his eyes. You actually see the beginning and endings of civilizations through his perspective (not directly, but with him as a prism), and they’re often quite funny and mostly very strange (but in a good way). When this book gets big, it gets big. But it can also get very micro in its focus. Other characters like Frances stay in the here and now, which in her case means whatever her latest art exhibit may be (although it typically involves her own body). Whether the focus is narrow or grandiose, Tamaki brings insight and humor to the page throughout. It’s a thoughtful look an human interactions, but it’s also one that rarely passes on a great setup for a laugh.
Tamaki’s art fluctuates dramatically strip to strip, with some having a very unfinished feel, while others have flares of color in an otherwise black and white world. Her cartooning adds a lot to the equation, especially in the facial expressions of some characters. Marsha may be her finest achievement in the book overall, as her complexity and internal conflict feels so human, but Tamaki’s visual demonstration of her emotions is brilliant. There’s one part where Cheddar – a mostly secondary character who might be my personal favorite overall – recounts one of Marsha’s finer moments, and Tamaki depicts Marsha’s face with a beautiful Schultzian smile that elevates the moment. There’s a lot of charm in her art.
One thing I really enjoy about the printed version of the book is how almost every strip is an island until the very end. We get little views into this world, but for the most part, the cast and setting is all that unifies it. Towards the close, though, there’s an ongoing narrative for the last fifth or so about Cheddar and Marsha dealing with everyone’s least favorite classmate while Wendy goes to prom, before they meet in the middle for a perfect ending to the book. It’s a surprise, but a welcome one. It makes it the type of comic that you can just pick up and enjoy for a bit, or if you’re looking for a longer read, it can pay off in that way too. It just depends on what you’re looking for. Either way, if you’re looking for a good comic, there’s one here. SuperMutant Magic Academy is one of the books from 2015 I can see myself revisiting most often going forward, and that’s a rare and welcome characteristic in a comic for me.
The Game Changer Award: The Valiant (Valiant Comics)
While this series started in 2014, it came to a close in 2015 and it did something significant: it redefined the Valiant universe. Now, for many, that may not seem like a big deal. It’s a young universe, so there wasn’t that much that really needed redefining. But still, The Valiant was a major deal, and not just because of its game changing nature: it was also a very good comic.
Since their relaunch, one of the most interesting things about Valiant is how well they’ve done with event comics. They can be tricky for most publishers, as they tend to involve massive parts of your line and actually restrict progression rather than make major change. But that’s not the case for Valiant. They have done them very, very well, and it’s because of two major reasons: they keep them relatively small and they put their best on the books. And The Valiant filled both of those qualifications, as it was a standalone four-issue mini-series crafted by Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt and Paolo Rivera. I don’t think I need to tell you how good those three are.
The Valiant itself was an event, through and through, but it was more than that. Sure, it had bombastic action sequences, but it was also a wonderful character piece. The relationship between Kay the Geomancer and Bloodshot, for one, was delightful and unexpected, and the pain the Eternal Warrior had been through after failing Geomancers for so long made it a lovely little arc for him. It was built character first, and that helped the story beats hit harder than they may have otherwise. The Valiant played off the past, present and future of the Valiant universe in a real way, but it wasn’t beholden to it. It never struggled to stay focused on its own story, instead using the rest of the Valiant universe as set up for its own powerful story.
The Valiant was the rarest of events in that it both was a great comic and an excellent jumping on point. If you were a longtime Valiant fan, this book would be your jam. If you weren’t, this would be a great place to start. Because of that and its storytelling power, it was one of the finest superhero comics of the year. It has something for all types of readers, and it encapsulated everything that was special about this burgeoning universe in one four issue series. That’s pretty impressive.
The 808s & Heartbreak Award: The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics)
When you’re an artist, change can be your most frightening enemy. Whether you write or draw comics or make music, trying something new after you establish what people love about your work can be the riskiest proposition of all. While we all peacock around saying we want something new, most fans want more of what we already love rather than something different. Take Kanye West, for example. His career began with three incredible rap albums: The College Dropout; Late Registration; and Graduation. He was at the peak of his powers and challenging all comers for being the king of the rap game after the last one came out.
And then he dropped 808s & Heartbreak, an album that was more electropop and R&B than rap. It featured a huge shift in production and a healthy dose of autotune, and I remember the general response being fairly negative from fans and mixed from critics. As a fan of the record, the thought crossed my mind that its biggest issue wasn’t that it was bad, it was that it wasn’t a “Kanye West album.” Or at least what the average person would want or expect from one. But I loved it at the time, and even as I listen to Paranoid from that album right now, I still groove to it. It’s a good one. It was just different.
For Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles’ The Wicked + The Divine, 2015 was the book’s 808s & Heartbreak in many ways. They finished off their second arc, and what an arc it was. It blew everyone’s minds – some of us more literally than others – and created a seismic shift in where the book was going and our relationship with the book overall. And then…well, everything changed. McKelvie and Wilson moved to Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl for the rest of the year, and that meant the book needed to find a new twist for the next arc. So for the third arc, they featured guest artists and a slightly different approach, with each issue being more or less told from the point-of-view of one of the gods. It was a huge change, as we’d gotten used to living through the perspective of our proxy – Laura – in the first two arcs, and now we are getting perspective from all kinds of different people. It was different. It was new. It could have broken the book.
But instead, it enriched it. It helped that artists like Stephanie Hans, Leila del Duca and Tula Lotay guested, but it wasn’t just the art. It was the overall fearlessness in the storytelling. Issue #13, a Tara focused issue featuring Lotay’s art, was maybe the most heartbreaking issue of any comic this year. It was an incendiary takedown of behavior on social media and the brutality modern celebrities can face every day. If I could hand someone any comic to explain the downside of modern culture, this would be it. Issue #14 was similarly gutsy, as this Woden-centric issue was entirely a remix of previously used art to tell this Daft Punk lookalike’s role in everything we’d seen so far. With a complete lack of new art, I easily could have seen readers stage a mini riot about this issue, but the way they handled it worked incredibly well and it was so, so fitting for the character. It was impossible not to love, even if it was different.
But that’s the point. People fear new and they fear different, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be great. Because of their situation, Team WicDiv was forced to take an enormous left turn and try new things. They had to make some bold decisions, and because of those choices, their book soared to higher levels than even before. Like 808s & Heartbreak, The Wicked + The Divine’s second year is proof that sometimes new or different can lead to something unique and exciting and challenging. And who couldn’t use a little more of that from time to time?
The Truth is Out There Award: Wild’s End (BOOM! Studios)
After five days of write-ups about comics, it can become a bit of a struggle to find something new to say about a comic. Every comic is different, of course, but it can sometimes feel like you’re hitting the same beats over and over again. So instead of breaking down how great the writing and art on Wild’s End is – and it is, as INJ Culbard made my creators of the year list for his art and Dan Abnett’s writing a very interesting and surprising story – or digging into where it ranks in my personal list of comics for the year – it’s #2, if you’re interested – I want to say this: there’s no comic I wish more people were reading.
This comic is described as War of the Worlds meets The Wind in the Willows, which is a pretty unique angle. It has a small town British feel mixed with alien based paranoia, and it comes from a smaller publisher and a phenomenal but not big name creative team. For all those reasons, I totally understand why readers may have missed this from the start. But it’s a truly fantastic read, and one that I’m confident that anyone could like. The character work is exceptional, the art is gorgeous and it’s just an incredibly told story. In short, it’s everything readers want from any comic.
But I’ll be honest: I don’t know a single person who is reading it. So here’s how I bring this year to a close. Do yourself a favor and take a chance on a comic you haven’t read that someone talked about in one of the infinite best of lists out there. I heartily recommend Wild’s End, and the first trade – which collects the first series – is out now. It’s phenomenal and leads into the excellent follow-up mini, The Enemy Within. But if not this, try something else out. We’re in a great place in comics in 2015, with one of the biggest issues we face being that there are just too many good comics to realistically read. That’s a real thing. But even with that in mind, we have no excuse to just read what we’ve always read because it’s what we’ve always read. As the year comes to a close, take an adventure with what you read, and maybe take it with this book. We’d all be better off if readers took a few more chances on something small and potentially great. Just think: you might just find your new favorite comic.
Thanks for reading the SKTCHIES, our first annual year end awards. In case you missed it at the top, SKTCHD will be taking the rest of the year off besides weekly episodes of Off Panel and an interview or two. We’ll be back in the new year with new content on the regular, and hope you all have a happy holiday season.