Wargames for Girls? (1964)
A Planet for Texans and The School for Good and Evil

Two Dozen 'Five Star' Comics


I use Goodreads weird (bear with me, this is going somewhere, eventually). I like the site as a way of tracking my reading... and that's it. I don't use it to track 'want to reads', I don't use it to discover new books, and I never, ever use it to share reviews.

And to double-weird it: I don't rate books. Except, as a visual shorthand, if I think 'this book is interesting, and I'd like to talk about it', I'll slap five stars on it. That makes it easy to sort, and leaps out when it is buried in a long list. If someone misconstrues that as an endorsement of perfection... eh... no harm done.

ANYWAY, this is all really interesting - or at least, relevant - because that has always been the way I use the site. There is, however, one notable exception: comics. For some reason, my 'five stars' for a comic book is a lot less complicated. I read a ton of comic book collections. And I stick five stars on the stuff that is really good. You know, kind of like the rest of the world uses Goodreads. Go figure. All my deeply-rooted biases against 'objective' reviewing come crashing to a halt.

What's it mean? Well, for one, it is very clearly a demonstration of my engrained bias against comic books. (I don't count graphic novels towards my Goodreads 'reading goal' either.) By saying I think they're bucket-able by star rating, I'm basically flipping comics the bird.

Again, consciously, I don't think I think this, and I can name lots of Great Comics that I think are Real Literature. But, behaviourally, I'm clearly still sitting on a bias against comics. And that is,... interesting. (To me.) Discuss. Do you rate comics differently?

What else does it mean? Well, it means when it is early January and I can't be bothered to write anything of substance, I can glean a listicle of out of it.

So here we go, of the graphic novels I read or re-read in 2016, here are the ones that earned my coveted, pseudo-objective, self-aware five star rating. Basically, my Best of 2016.

712i85Tzk8L._AC_UL320_SR206,320_American Flagg! Definitive Collection (Howard Chaykin)

I remember reading American Flagg as a kid, when I compulsive attacked anything from First Comics, and being confused as all hell (I liked Raul and, uh, boobs. But was confused by everything else.) Now, 2016, Flagg makes much more sense. You know the bits in The Dark Knight Returns where the media and talking heads all debate Batman and argue with one another in a particularly shrill fashion? American Flagg is that, as a series. There's some action, of course, but the key theme is the relationship between Big Media and Big Society. It is, I suppose, presciently dystopian, but it is also a really well-crafted zine-ish assault on traditional comic book layouts and formatting. Basically, upon reading this, I finally understand why Howard Chaykin was very much a thing. (What I don't understand is... anything else he's ever done.)

Avengers vs X-Men (Many)

A big Marvel Event! that... I quite liked? It is, like all the Events!, very retro, but the art was good, the story was fun, and the (sizeable) book actually tells the story in and of itself, without having to buy the sixteen spinoff volumes. I think there's a lot to be said about the structure of this - Marvel cut through the bollocks and got back to the 'core consumer insight' of people wanting to see superheroes beat the crap out of one another. With just enough plot and/or pretty art and/or sense of Purpose to make it all work. 

Blankets (Craig Thompson) 

A classic that I re-read for the first time in ten years or so. Very good. Very emo. A very... good example of the - immensely well-written and beautifully-drawn - introspective dude-angst comic memoir. 600 pages, and, surprise, the answer is... being an artist! But snark aside, it is a legitimately lovely coming of age story, told with the brutal honesty that's necessary to keep it from becoming self-aggrandising tripe.

BoxerssaintscoverBoxers & Saints (Gene Luen Yang)

weeps quietly

Brenda Starr: The Complete Pre-Code Comics, Volume 1 (Dale Messick) 

More interesting than fun, and I freely skipped all the non-Brenda stories that were sort of crammed in here. Dale Messick was a true comics pioneer, as was Brenda - one of the first female protagonists. The lurid 'pre-code' titling makes it sound like it is going to be wildly prurient, and it really isn't. Brenda gets into scrapes, folks crush on her, she's continuously sexually harassed, and... she always wins. Add goofball antics, wash, repeat.

Copperhead, Volume 2 (Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski)

I read V1 last year, and liked that too. Space opera noir! Amongst other virtues, Copperhead world-builds like a boss, and if you ever need something to slap down on a counter and be like 'THIS IS HOW YOU SHOW, DON'T TELL', pick it up. I mean, this is a far-future space world with aliens, a deep history, and lots of complicated cultural prejudices and... it all comes out naturally; that's good stuff.

Criminal, Volume 1 (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips)

A series reread. I was like 'hey, I should reread Criminal' and got excited and then... sort of slogged through it. I think the answer might be in the fact that I five starred V1 only. This volume feels new and fun - very Hard Case Crime. The later volumes... just a bit samey. Criminal is also an excellent example of where comics were a decade ago: it is bleak and 'real' and grimy (but not full Millarian turbo-grimdark). Whereas the market, and my tastes, have definitely shifted towards the perkier. 

Descender_vol1-1Descender, Volumes 1 & 2 (Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen)

FAVORITE OF THE YEAR KLAXON. God damn, I like this series. It is beautiful, clever and keeps me guessing from issue to issue. If you had told me that I'd have two space opera comics on this list, and neither of them were Saga, I'd have told you... uh... well, probably a Nexus joke. But after that, I would've been speechless.

Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment (Gerry Conway, Bill Mantlo, Gene Conlan)

A ... classic? I mean, for a certain definition of class ('old looking', I guess?). So campy. Also so, much better than the Doctor Strange movie. I really like Doctor Doom as a character, and I admire the fact that he's been a lynchpin of the Marvel Universe for half a century, without once, in any way, looking anything other than totally ridiculous. You've conquered the Earth, like, six times! Get a cape without holes in it!

BUT, one of the reasons I like Doom is that he's got a real motivation - one that is explored at depth in this volume. Strange, by contrast, comes across as a bit of a wet blanket, but that's the problem with Strange: he's a quasi-omnipotent hand-waver with ill-defined powers. He's there to support, and, honestly, be used. Doom is up for that.

Dreadstar Omnibus, Volume 1 (Jim Starlin)

Three non-Saga space operas! Which probably means we should talk about the elephant sitting outside the room, on its pile of accolades. I totally read Saga. I'm mostly caught up and everything. But Saga's weirdly burrowed into my mind in a way that, although I recognise it is great - and zomg, that art - I don't really look forward to it like I used to. Am I taking Saga for granted? Yes. Probably.

Does this mean I really think the 2000AD-lite hackery of Dreadstar is better than Saga? LYING. But did I, in 2016, enjoy Dreadstar more than Saga? Well, evidently. THE STARS SAY SO.

Giant Days, Volume 1 (John Allison, Lissa Treiman)

I also read the bejeezus out of Scary Go Round, which I may like even more. Jamie and Jon have been bad for both my wallet and my time.

I Hate Fairyland (Skottie Young)

Jon has taught me many things, and an appreciation of Skottie Young is one of them. I don't know what I expected from this comic - I think something a little more crass and less funny. But it reminds me of the Deadpool movie: filthy, a joke-a-second and, probably, impossible to replicate.

Portrait_incredibleMoon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Volume 1: BFF (Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Natacha Bustos)

Ok, here's what I don't like: as a jaded commercialist, I can see how Moon Girl (like Ms Marvel) is being weasel-wedged into the new Inhumans-not-mutants direction of the Marvel universe, which I resent, because it is so obviously part of the long game to get the X-Men back into the MCU and BLEH. That's that.

Now, here's what I do like: Moon Girl is probably the best, most empathetic, most wonderfully inviting Marvel superhero since the halcyon days of Spider-man. She's the everygeek, excluded, ungainly, unappreciated. She's not a tragic victim, nor is she a privileged elite - she's a hard-working, over-looked one of us, and I absolutely adore her. She's smart, the adventures are fun, and her 'super power' is basically the coolest power EVER, in that she gets to hang out with a dinosaur. It is plugged straight into what kids feel (and, er, big kids that still feel like kids feel). Amazing.

Morning Glories, Volumes 1 & 2 (Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma)

I read the other volumes after this, and they're all pretty good, but once it became less about the school and more about, I dunno, the everything... - I dunno. I like creepy prep school dramas, I don't like time travel. Shrug.

Nimona (Noelle Stevenson)

Awww. I mean, c'mon, I'm only human. What kind of monster doesn't love this comic?

55f1a65d7073f-1Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat!, Volume 1 (Kate Leth, Brittney Williams)

Comics, as have been noted, are going through a new sincerity trend. The zig to Criminal's zag. And I love it. Hellcat, Moon Girl, Nimona, Squirrel Girl,... all very much of this ilk. fun, joyous, light-hearted - clever without being angsty, accessible without being sentimental, revisionist without being dark.  

Hellcat is also charming for being new-reader accessible, which, if you've ever listened to the One Comic Podcast, is my bugbear of choice. What's the point of starting a new series if it is so excruciating self-referential that it doesn't make sense to new readers? Especially in a world where comic books qua comic books are like the... fourth... largest way of being introduced to characters (film, tv, fashion). Anyway, if you want to hear me scream about that at length, listen to the Spider-Gwen episode because I'm still grudgy. Hellcat is a great one, because you can just pick up and hop right in. There are mentions and appearances by other characters, but you don't need a generation of reading to understand the Who of She-Hulk or the Canon of Valkryie in order to appreciate it. 

Red Sonja, Volumes 1 and 2 (Gail Simone, Walter Geovani) 

...which, after rereading, I now solemnly declare the best fantasy book of the past two years. Discuss.

Silver Surfer, Volumes 1 and 2 (Dan Slott, Mike Allred, Laura Allred) 

Thanks again, One Comic Podcast! This run of Silver Surfer feels like an attempt to make Doctor Who, except, good. #epictrolling BUT 4 SRS, it is a really, really smart look at ways to treat an omnipotent protagonist: use an ordinary person as an empathetic guide; discuss the consequences of their action; make the conflicts emotional, not physical; and innovate the format of the medium to reflect the unbounded 'power' on display. 

They're Not Like Us, Volume 2 (Eric Stephenson, Simon Gane)

Holy cow, I like this series. This is the X-Men reboot we deserve, but that descriptions makes it sound derivative, and it isn't. Kids develop powers, get found by competing interests, have to figure out where they fit in the world. Except without costumes or aliens or anything: just kids dealing with all the shit of growing up and fitting in, except also with master manipulators dicking with their heads.

Perfect art as well. I'm a huge fan of Simon Gane, and he nails it here.Volume 1 shouldn't take it personally - that's a five star comic too. I just read it in 2015.

Thunderbolts, Volume 3: Infinity (Charles Soule, Jefte Palo)

This particular Thunderbolts moment is just the right balance of goofy and twisty, and probably the first time I've liked Venom in a comic since I hit puberty. Soule does funny well, he does meta well, he does 'super-' stuff well, and, he does heists really, really well. I've always liked the Thunderbolts concept, and a lot of writers and artists have all had very impressive (and less impressive) goes at making it work. For me, Soule's take on how these dodgy bastards all fit into the underworld of the Marvel universe is a joy to read. It is particularly interesting as an achievement because Soule takes over during the Infinity EVENT!, so has to weasel his characters into the story-shadow of big stupid cosmic stuff. He does so rather elegantly, and tidies up the storylines from his predecessor as well.

The_Unbeatable_Squirrel_Girl_1.jpegThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volumes 1-3 and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe (Ryan North, Erica Henderson)

Well, yes. I mean, these are kind of perfect. See: the accessibility thing, in Hellcat. If there are better comics to hand a potential new reader, I dunno what they might be. And they just keep getting better and better. Without sounding a bit Disney, it is also lovely to have a character that is smart and not just super. She solves problems in an unusual way, rather than just grunting and lifting things real hard.

Wolverine & The X-Men: Volume 1 (Jason Aaron, Chris Bachalo, Nick Bradshaw)

New sincerity... X-Men style, and Jason Aaron seems to give very few shits about the sanctity of the canon, which I appreciate. The whole thing is chaotic enough to, again, feel like an actual entry point into a batshit canon. That said, the rest of the series was... also good, but not as good. I think as it started to create its own canon, it lost a bit of the fun. Reminds me a bit of the Ultimates reboots, broadly speaking: they were fun when they were starting from scratch; less so when they became entirely about reclaiming as much of the original Marvel canon as possible. 

Zero, Volume 1: An Emergency (Alex Kot, et al)

My Ales Kot writin'-crush was so 2015, but apparently there was a bit of a long tail, as all my Zero reading took place early this year. The first volume of Zero is great, but the rest of the series spiralled ferociously up into its own navel, eventually concluding in a black hole of pretension. As a series, it sort of goes from the Best of Warren Ellis to the Worst of Grant Morrison over the course of a few short and ponderous volumes.

If you're looking for a fight, my full  reading list can be found here. You can heckle me for not liking Lumberjanes (I did! Kinda!), or for reading Contest of Champions (I didn't finish! I swear!).