Welcome again to the first annual “Best of”s from all your friends here at We Have Always Lived in the Kraken! This year and every year we’ll be making ridiculous top lists, handing out awards we just made up, and in general celebrating the weird, wild year we all just experienced. Today we’re talking books, comics, graphic novels, and manga.
Okay, we have a confession to make. That part about books? …kind of a lie. There were certainly a lot of good books released in 2015, but it turns out none of us really read any of them. (We blame the schools.) But when it comes to comics, graphic novels, and manga, well, there we have you covered.
This was quite the year for the combination written word and art art medium. Marvel finally had its Secret Wars event that Jonathan Hickman had been building to for years, and then decided to head into the 21st century, where it turns out all super heroes probably aren’t a bunch of white dudes. The Hulk went from the totally brooding Bruce Banner to totally awesome Korean American Amadeus Cho, Jane Foster was revealed to have gone from Thor’s love interest to actually Thor, Native American superhero Red Wolf got his own comic, Muslim American Kamala Khan continues to rock it as Miss Marvel, and then there’s Squirrel Girl, who is simply the best. Meanwhile, DC moved its offices from New York to LA, and had its Convergence before embarking on the Darkseid War, which led to heroes becoming gods, and… okay, no one knows what the hell DC is really doing. But they did give the world a new Batman, whether the world wanted it it or not. Plus, Frank Miller decided to go back to the Dark Knight well one more time, and Neil Gaiman brought his Overture to an end.
Once we leave the confines of the two majors, things pick up even more. Noelle Stevenson continued to prove her awesomeness with Lumberjanes and the print release of Nimona, Jillian Tamaki brought us back to school with the print version of SuperMutant Magic Academy, and John Lewis continued his work with the March series. Archie got a much needed revamp for the modern age, and is flourishing. Brian K. Vaughan continues to be awesome with the release of Paper Girls while Scott McCloud chose to grace us with more of his work with The Sculptor. Meanwhile, on the manga front, we lost a mangaka legend with the passing of Shigeru Mizuki at the age of 93, but we in the West finally got access to his genius with his history of Japan, and a story about Hitler, of all people. Yoshitoki Ōima’s poignant and biting A Silent Voice came to both an end and a beginning, as it is finally released in the States the same year the manga itself finishes in Japan. Plus, we continue to get all of the wonders of One-Punch Man as well as Fragments of Horror, the new work from horror master Junji Ito. So in the Year of Too Much the written word proved once again to be well ahead of the curve. If we are being honest there is always too much to read, and this year was no different, and it really is glorious.
Sometimes I fantasize about “finishing” an entire medium–watching all the movies worth watching, or seeing all the great TV shows (this was a much more possible prospect four or five years ago)–and then using my entertainment time just to keep up with new material. It’s easier for some than others, though. On the top shelf of one of my three bookcases are three books: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. As the names imply, finishing even just these limited lists would take a lifetime (or maybe five years of real indolence after I win the lottery). But the difference in mediums is demonstrated by the fact that the Movies list starts in 1902 and the Comics list starts in 1837, but the Books list starts with stuff written before the year zero. That’s negative years for you math majors out there. So forget for a minute the problem of the Year of Too Much, where it’s nigh impossible to keep up with the latest entertainments, and think about all those centuries of great art out there to catch up on! Is it any wonder I haven’t read The Girl on the Train when I haven’t gotten around to all of Dashiell Hammet or Patricia Highsmith? That I didn’t catch this year’s contentious slate of Hugo nominees when there’s another 50 or so Philip K. Dick novels waiting? As some literary wizard or another probably said, all we can decide is what to read with the time that is given to us. So while I spent this year reading classics like, uh, The Martian and all my Stephen King novels for the eighth time, all I really had time to keep up with were my favorite webcomics.
Weirdly enough (maybe it’s me?), several of my long-time favorites announced this year they were ending. With webcomics, though, that’s taking the long view, as I expect them all to be around through next year. But here you go, a pre-emptive list of the fallen, Oscar style. Just imagine a full-throated singer in a sparkly dress crooing, “We’ll Meet Again.”
One of the oldest webcomics still running (literally, it’s one of only seven remaining webcomics that started in 1997 or earlier), Sluggy Freelance has been ending for about five years now and might not end for five more. In my opinion, creator Pete Abrams can take his time wrapping up his enormous epic about demons, vampires, aliens, alternate dimensions, sinister corporations, cute talking animals, and freelance web design. One of the prime examples of “Cerebus syndrome,” where an initial silly and light-hearted comic gradually becomes darker and more complex, Sluggy has had a little trouble in its old age balancing its goofy gag-and-parody roots with the sweeping sci-fi and fantasy plotlines that have come to define it. But there’s a reason the strip still has a dedicated audience, and no doubt will right up until Abrams decides to close the book on Torg, Riff, Zoe, Aylee, Bun-Bun, and all the rest. This year’s plotlines included a demonic attack inspired by Germanic folktales (which our heroes ran into on the way to parody furniture store “Bjorkea”), an exciting, table-setting, and very “Three’s Company” storyline where Torg finally leads the fight against the villainous HeretiCorp (with the aid of his friends, the Black Ops Christmas Elves, of course), and the opening salvo in the resumption of an ancient vampire war. Although the comic is probably now in its Third Act (with such developments as Abrams revealing a twist about a character that he’s been hiding and hinting at for more than a decade), the strip shows no signs of slowing down in either quality or quantity. Take a month and read through the archives, it’s great.
Next up on our soon-to-be-gone list, Chris Hastings’ decade-long webcomic Dr. McNinja. A story about a man who is both a doctor and a ninja, this is a hilarious, insane blend of 80s action movies and everything you wished existed when you were 12–like, say, an entire storyline about time-traveling to a dystopian future where dinosaurs rule the Earth and are super racist against non-dinosaurs, or another about a mystical unicorn motorcycle, or the one where Dr. McNinja has to escape from Dracula’s moon base. The essence of the series’ humor is that it takes its illogical story elements very seriously, with gorgeous art and pitch-perfect writing on every page. In 2015, Hastings finished part one of “The End,” a climactic story of the sort where all the safe places blow up, the protagonist reaches his lowest point, and all of his old villains decide to band together and kill him. Part of me is sad that the comic is ending, but the 12-year-old part of me is super excited to see how the hell the good doctor is going to get out of this one. Plus, I’m eager to see what Hastings will come up with next.
The final strip that announced its impending end this year is Howard Taylor’s Schlock Mercenary. Taylor is my hero, not only for making a living off his own creative output but for having the dedication, work ethic, and talent required to post a good strip every single damn day for the last 15 and a half years. He’s never missed one, and neither have I–Schlock Mercenary is a fantastic strip, a military sci-fi story about a band of mercenaries and the motile blob of crap who works for them as they “teraport” around the galaxy, meet interesting people and kill them. The joy of the strip is two-fold. One, the brilliant way that Howard weaves one story into the next, keeping strict contiunity and gradually upping the stakes so that what near the beginning is a story about the mercs fleeing the evil law firm Partnership Collective eventually and seamlessly becomes a story featuring a god-like AI, the rediscovery of an ancient alien race of balloon-people, and an intergalactic war. Two, it’s a blast watching Taylor get better and better at this, to the point where the last few books have some of his best work. It’s not just funny and thrilling, it’s real sci-fi, with meaningful things to say about the technological advances of the 31st century as well as our own modern day social dynamics. In 2015, our heroes are undergoing some serious changes in organization and personality, now that they’re the envoys to one of the oldest (and richest) races in the galaxy. Something’s getting blown up and/or stolen, I bet. Maybe more than one thing. Like the other webcomics I’ve discussed, Schlock has a long way to go yet–maybe as many as three books, counting this one, with each book typically taking one to two years to post–so I’m not too worried yet. But I know I’ll miss these characters when they’re gone.
But what’s this? As “We’ll Meet Again” warbles into its closing verse, up on the screen flashes a webcomic that didn’t just announce it’s end, it actually ended. The zen/gag/political statement-a-day strip A Softer World posted its last real strip on June 1st, 2015, after 12 years of bizarre, hilarious, sweet, melancholy, and/or thoughtful little works of art. Each one is three panels featuring photos by Emily Horne and words by Joey Comeau, and they range from the amusingly (or depressingly) dark to the whimsical to veritable anthemic slogans for the modern generation (“We have bombs / truth and beauty bombs”). Always worth a quick read in the morning, it seemed as though A Softer World would be around forever. And then it wasn’t. So it goes.
To conclude my part in this post, here’s a list of 2015 books I’m looking forward to catching up with, just so you know I’m not a total illiterate what needs pictures with his words.
- Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham (I am an unabashed Grisham fan, at least when he’s writing about lawyers instead of house painting or whatever)
- Crooked, by Austin Grossman (one of my favorite writers)
- Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, by David Wong (another of my favorite writers)
- The Bazaar of Bad Dreams and Finders Keepers, by Stephen King
- Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I admit I’ve been putting this off because, even though Coates is a phenomenal writer, I know this book will make me sad and angry)
- Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson
- The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin
This year in manga two momentous things happened: Guts got off the boat (in the dark fantasy series Berserk), and in romantic comedy-with-yakuza series Nisekoi, Raku admitted to himself and the audience his true feelings for “best girl”. (I’m trying not spoil who he chooses so our dear readers can have the pleasure of experiencing Nisekoi for themselves. Spoiler: Don’t read Nisekoi.) In both cases I had stopped reading the manga months (or years) before they finally stopped stalling and got on with their story. Ultimately I prefer consuming long running manga in large binges, preferably once the story is complete and I have confirmation the ending didn’t pull a Gantz.
I already covered this in a previous Catch of the Day, but it really has to be emphasized how truly glorious Unbeatable Squirrel Girl really is, a bundle of happiness and childlike glee. Comics can do a lot of things, but sometimes I think in all the gritty darkness of the world we forget that one of the things they do best is have and breed fun. Squirrel Girl is the epitome of this. Ryan North’s writing oozes with charm and perfect quirkiness, while Erica Henderson’s illustrations bring a delightful lightness back to a medium that has become increasingly grim. So just trust me, give Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a try, and see the glory of the hero who can defeat Doctor Doom and become Galactus’ BFF.
Next up, another past Catch of the Day, the graphic novel/short story collection Killing and Dying. Remember all that stuff I said about the light fun of Squirrel Girl? Well, forget about all that, because Killing and Dying has no room for your happy fantasies. Killing and Dying cares about cold, hard reality. Sometimes it is happy, sometimes it is sad, but mostly it is somewhere in-between. Adrian Tomine writes and illustrates six stories about life, death, dreams, failure, love, loss, and everything else. Each is sobering and brilliant, and afterward you are left contemplating what on Earth just happened. The thematic throughline of these six stories is quite the experience, and the endings especially remind you that life doesn’t care if you’re ready and that things don’t always end up the way you’d want them to. Life is messy, and Killing and Dying embraces this wholeheartedly.
Okay, back to the happy with Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona. Well, happy may not be the right word, but there is definitely a pep to this 2014 webcomic that saw its print release last year. All you need to do is take a classic hero and villian fantasy tale, flip who is really the hero and who was really the villian on its head, make the two be in love with each other, and add in a shapeshifting, wise-cracking sidekick, and you get creative gold. Nimona is a deconstruction of generic medieval fantasy stories, but it’s also touching story about misfits finding friendship in each other. The titular Nimona’s personality is wondrous, and her heartbreaking backstory informs a deeply compelling narrative. The unique tone of the book really helps create a unique experience that is a great read for all ages. Plus, guys, Nimona turns into a dragon and a kitten! I repeat, a dragon and a kitten. What more could you possibly want? More!? Fine, how about a villain with a robotic arm? Because this story has that. What about a riveting feud/love story between the main male protagonist and his male antagonist? Yep, Nimona has that too. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a zany scientist… wait, it has that too? See, this story has everything, so go ahead and read it.
(Kyu: Nimona is great! I have original Nimona art by Noelle Stevenson on my wall, and you should all be jealous.)
Wayward may have gotten its start at the end of 2014, but the bulk of the story was told in 2015, and what a tale it has been. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with yokai subbed in for vampires and a little bit more mystery to the proceedings every week. The result is one of the more enjoyable comics from 2015. The characters are unique and relatable, and the series manages to do a great job building up a great cast of young boys and girls who each exhibit a different magic power. Add in a generational component to the struggle between old and new magic, and you get a story that kicks ass. Rori Lane is a fun protagonist who slowly discovers her special powers, and also her destiny. The art is gorgeous, and the book makes great use of the team-up of Jim Zub (Samurai Jack, Skullkickers), Steve Cummings (Legends of the Dark Knight, Deadshot), and John Rauch (Invincible) as well as a number of other contributors to create another great comic from Image. This comic does a great job of combining the Western and Eastern style comics into a compelling story that is not to be missed. I cannot wait to see where this story takes me in 2016.
There are a lot of different manga I could choose to talk about here. I could write about how My Hero Academia is a fun take on the super hero school genre, how One-Punch Man is an awesome reconstruction of super hero stories, how A Silent Voice is a devastating portrayal of bullying and redemption, or the way Assassination Classroom is able to make sharp criticisms of Japanese societal attitudes toward educating its children while also being so much fun. Or even Food Wars, which made a cooking manga about the most interesting thing possible to read. But I have decided instead to highlight Tabata Yuuki’s Black Clover. On the surface, this seems to be nothing more than a generic Shōnen manga about two friends and rivals who both desire to be the magician king–and well, to be honest, that really is all its. But man, is it done well. The manga possesses a great understanding of how to properly arc the power of its characters, and offers a great message about not letting others tell you what you can or can’t do, but where it really excels is in making each of its magicians unique in both power and personality. The world bubbling beneath the surface of Black Clover is vast, and this feels like a story that will only continue to get better. Then again, maybe I am just a sucker for magic (or in this case anti-magic) swords. Really, if you have cool swords, anything else is just icing on the cake.
Graphic Novels, Comics, and Manga I Plan to Read Still:
- Bacchus Vol. 1 by Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf)
- Deep Dark Fears by Fran Krause (Ten Speed)
- The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ And Amal by E.K. Weaver (Iron Spike)
- Private Eye: Deluxe Edition by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente (Image)
- Russian Olive To Red King by Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen (AdHouse)
- Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler by Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn & Quarterly)
- Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz)
- The Divine by Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka, and Tomer Hanuka (First Second)
- Two Brothers by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
- Giant Days by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar (Boom Box)
- Island by various (Image)
- Klaus by Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s
And just so it doesn’t look like I don’t read actual books, here are the books from 2015 I plan to read now that I have been told by everyone else they are awesome, aka, what is now or soon to be in my e-reader:
- Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
- The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
- Made To Kill by Adam Christopher
- Fates and Furies: A Novel by Lauren Groff
- Game Changer by Tim Bowler (Oxford University Press)
That’s it for today’s “Best Of”s for 2015. Come back tomorrow for the next entry in this week-long series, the best Movies of the year.